JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The dividing line between success and defeat in college football is razor thin.
The receiver catches the pass or the defensive back tips it away. The running back gets through the hole or dives for a first down, or he comes up a foot short.
For most of the 2016 season, Kentucky had found itself on the victorious side of the game of inches. But in Saturday’s TaxSlayer Bowl at Everbank Field, the Wildcats came up on the short end against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets 33-18 before a crowd of 43,102.
Coach Mark Stoops’ Wildcats found themselves in an early hole, as Kentucky won the coin toss and elected to receive, only to allow a Tech scoop-and-score 38-yard fumble return by linebacker P.J. Davis on the game’s fourth play. Kentucky rallied to within 10-3 and drove the ball to the Tech 5-yard line with about five and a half minutes left in the first half. But Stoops elected to go for the touchdown, and senior running back Jojo Kemp was dropped behind the line of scrimmage on the 4th down play.
From there, Tech added on, with a 21-yard touchdown run by QB Justin Thomas and a pair of long field goals, stretching the lead to 23-3 at the end of the third quarter.
Kentucky added a 20-yard touchdown pass from Stephen Johnson to Dorian Baker early in the fourth quarter and a rushing score from Johnson, but was unable to pull out the victory. The Wildcats struggled on the ground, with neither of Kentucky’s 1,000 yard rushers -- Stanley Williams and Benny Snell Jr. (pictured) -- distinguishing themselves against Tech.
The Wildcats finished their surprising campaign with a 7-6 mark. Georgia Tech improves to 9-4.
Stoops obviously was disappointed with the outcome, but gave credit to Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson and his Yellow Jackets for the 15-point victory.
"They played better," said Stoops of Georgia Tech. "They executed in critical moments. They deserved to win the game. So I congratulate them.
"As I just told the team, we're extremely disappointed with the way we finished in losing this game. But I'm very proud of them. That's a great group to coach. There's a lot to build on. I'm very excited about the future. "I thank our seniors. Very, very few in numbers, but they're very good quality young men and quality players. We're going to miss them. "I appreciate the way they kind of set the tone for us throughout the year when adversity hit. They were always very steady. Without that positive leadership, you're never going to build your program. I know we've taken very monumental steps to push this program further. "We return a whole bunch of football players. They deserve a little bit of time off right now, then we'll get back to work when we get back when the second semester begins. But I'm proud of this team, their efforts, everything that we've asked them to do. "We'll continue to build, become a stronger program. I can't let one game get myself or this team down or take anything away from the good things that they did."
Stoops will be back on the recruiting trail immediately, where he has nabbed verbal commitments from several impressive prospects following Kentucky’s late November win over Louisville. Stoops’s 2017 recruiting class has been ranked in the Top 25, or at times, even the Top 20, by some of the major recruiting services.
Photo by Jamie H. Vaught