What can Kentucky football learn from loss to Georgia?
Three takeaways from Kentucky’s 34-17 loss to Georgia:
1. Kentucky’s talent is just not as good as Georgia’s talent.
That’s the bottom line. As much as Mark Stoops and Vince Marrow have improved UK football’s recruiting since the duo hit the Cats’ campus back in 2013, Kentucky is not quite to the level of a Georgia roster that is filled with five-star players, many of whom will be cashing NFL paychecks in the not-too-distant future.
The Georgia offense proved that. Behind a big, physical offensive line, the Bulldogs rushed for 331 yards. That’s the most against this UK defense all season. The Bulldogs gained 444 yards. That’s the most against the Cats all season. The Bulldogs scored 34 points on a UK defense that had now allowed more than 20 points in a game all season.
Georgia sophomore running back D’Andre Swift rushed for 156 yards on his own, including an 83-yard touchdown in which he needed just a small crack to burst into an open UK secondary. There was no chance catching him. Too good. And this was against a defense that had not allowed a run longer than 34 yards all season.
The first time Georgia touched the ball, Mecole Hardman returned a punt 65 yards to the UK 23-yard line which set up the visitors’ first score. The play was sort of a reality check. Yes, Kentucky has a few explosive players, but the Bulldogs have a bunch of explosive players. And they can make plays.
Georgia Coach Kirby Smart was complimentary of the Cats.
“I give a lot of credit to Mark Stoops, to his program and his team,” Smart said. “What he’s done here, to create this type of atmosphere and to have a game of this magnitude in Lexington, Kentucky, says that the SEC is a tough place to play and there’s some good coaches in this league.”
This season has shown the Cats are coming, but Saturday proved they are not there yet.
2. The UK offense did show signs of improvement — really.
Yes, yes, Eddie Gran is way down the list of UK fans’ most popular coaches. We know the knocks. He’s too predictable. He’s too conservative. He won’t open it up. Despite having Benny Snell and Lynn Bowden, his offense ranks near the bottom nationally in total offense.
Yet there were signs of life on Saturday, especially in the second half. Small signs, yes. But you could see them. Forward steps. The past two games, quarterback Terry Wilson has been more decisive in his throws. Lynn Bowden has been more involved in the attack. Benny Snell ended up with 73 yards on 20 carries.
A false start penalty that turned third-and-4 at the Georgia 6-yard line to third-and-9 at the 11 in the first half didn’t help. UK had to settle for a field goal. Nor did it help when starting offensive guard Bunchy Stallings was ejected in the third quarter for putting his hands on an official.
In the end, Kentucky gained 310 yards on a pretty good Georgia defense. That’s not good enough, of course. But the Cats did keep fighting, scoring a couple of touchdowns in the second half when all seemed out of reach.
We’ll see if some of that improvement can carry forward.
3. There is still plenty left on Kentucky’s plate.
The loss dropped the Cats to 7-2 overall and 5-2 in the SEC. An East Division title is out. The SEC Championship Game is out. But there should be plenty of motivation for this Kentucky team the rest of the way. “We can’t let one loss become two,” said Stoops.
The final three games are certainly winnable. Kentucky travels to Tennessee next week. The Vols are improving under first-year coach Jeremy Pruitt and Tennessee will be at home. But Kentucky should be favored. Then comes the home finale against Middle Tennessee, a Conference-USA team that is 6-3.
Then comes the regular season finale at Louisville. Who knows what shape the Cardinals will be in by Nov. 24. Bobby Petrino’s team dropped to 2-7 with Saturday’s humiliating 77-16 loss at Clemson. Who knows if Petrino will even be the U of L coach when the Cats roll into Cardinal Stadium two days after Thanksgiving?
From UK’s perspective, it will be interesting to see how the Cats react to Saturday’s loss. They had never been in this position before, playing a winner-take-all game for a division title and the program’s first-ever trip to the league championship game. Can an experienced team shake off the disappointment and get back to business?
Kentucky can still finish 10-2. UK hasn’t won 10 football games in a season since 1977. And there’s a reason that we keep bringing up 1977. It’s the benchmark. The Cats can still go to a very good bowl, perhaps a New Year’s Day bowl, if they run the table the rest of the way. That’s certainly a worthy goal.