Sidelines with John Clay

Three takeaways from Kentucky football’s loss to Tennessee

Three takeaways from Kentucky’s 17-13 loss to Tennessee at Kroger Field on Saturday night:

1. Statistics are for losers

There have been a multitude of games — dare we say the majority of games? — in this long Kentucky-Tennessee border war of a college football series in which Kentucky was overmatched, outgained, deserved to lose and did so decisively. Saturday night was not one of those games. And the Cats lost anyway.

Mark Stoops’ team led the Volunteers 13-0 at the end of the first quarter and 13-3 at halftime. They outgained Tennessee 327-296. They dominated time of possession 41:37-18:23. And the Cats rushed for 302 yards. And the Cats lost anyway.

“We did a lot of good things,” said UK Coach Mark Stoops afterward. “But you’ve got to put the ball in the end zone.”

That Kentucky could not do. Not enough, anyway. After a huge 17-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that took 10:18 off the clock, then a short two-play, 24-yard touchdown drive off a blocked punt, UK did not score again. Five times the hosts had the ball in Tennessee territory, not once did Kentucky score.

That was the game in a nutshell right there, the reason Stoops’ club is now 4-5 overall and 2-5 in the SEC while Tennessee improved to 5-5 overall and 3-3 in the conference.

2. So why couldn’t Kentucky score more points?

That’s the catch-22. The reason Eddie Gran’s offense was able to move the ball had to do with the play of quarterback Lynn Bowden and his running backs. Bowden rushed for 114 yards on 26 carries. Chris Rodriguez gained 81 yards on 12 carries. Kavosiey Smoke picked up 58 yards on just eight carries. And A.J. Rose gained 44 yards on 16 trips.

But with wide receiver Bowden at quarterback, Kentucky threw the ball just seven times all night. And when they moved the ball, and the field condensed, the harder it became for the one-dimensional team to sustain or finish the drive.

That was the case on Kentucky’s final possession. Down 17-13, the Cats recovered a Tennessee fumble at the UT 45-yard line. Eight plays later, UK had a first-and-goal at the Tennessee 6-yard line with around 2:30 to go. Here’s the sequence:

First-and-goal from the 6: Rodriguez off right tackle for 1 yard.

Second-and-goal from the 5: Bowden off left tackle for 3 yards.

Third-and-goal from the 2: Tennessee called for having 12 men on the field, moving the ball to the 1.

Third-and-goal from the 1: Rodriguez dropped for a loss of a yard.

Fourth-and-goal from the 2: Bowden tries an option keeper off the right side and is stopped for no gain.

UK turns the ball over on downs. Ball game.

“We had a chance to win the game at the 1-yard line today,” Gran said afterward. “We had a chance to win our last two out of three, or whatever it was with one yard.”

And Kentucky couldn’t get that yard.

3. Three games to go, with two wins needed

So now it’s on to Vanderbilt next Saturday for a 3:30 p.m. game with the Commodores. After that, the Cats finish the regular season with a pair of home games, first against UT Martin and then in-state rival Louisville. With four wins, Kentucky needs to win two of out of the final three to earn the six wins needed for bowl eligibility.

Vanderbilt is not very good. The Commodores were trounced 56-0 at Florida on Saturday, dropping Derek Mason’s team to 2-7 overall and 1-5 in the SEC. After upsetting Missouri 21-14 on Oct. 19, they’ve scored all of seven points in their last two games.

But Kentucky is 0-3 on the road this year, losing at Mississippi State, South Carolina and Georgia. And over the years, the Vanderbilt game has had a way of turning into an ugly affair in which the Cats thought they should have won, but did not.

How will Stoops’ team be able to shake off the disappointment of letting one slip away against Tennessee? Bowden said after the game there was no finger-pointing in the locker room and he wasn’t going to let that start. Stoops said he was proud of the way his team fought and didn’t foresee a problem going back to work.

Still, this one might be hard to shake off.

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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