The Kentucky Wildcats came into this unique 2020 season with a lot of confidence and publicity as a darkhorse SEC East division favorite. Even more so, the Cats went to Auburn as a media darling to pull the upset on the Plains.
Alas, after a first-half with more swings of momentum than thought possible, Kentucky had a disjointed second half offensively and two costly turnovers, dropping 29-16 to the Tigers Saturday afternoon.
In the first half, UK (0-1) did the things offensively that Cat fans had grown accustomed to in 2019. The Cats dominated the time of possession with over 20 minutes and broke a touchdown run by Kavosiey Smoke to go out on top 7-0.
After an answer by Auburn (1-0) and a “swinging gate” two-point conversion to take an 8-7 lead, the Cats marched down the field and scored on a Christopher Rodriguez Jr. one-yard run to reclaim the lead.
But, hold the phone. Swing number one coming...now.
The touchdown call was reversed with Rodriguez being ruled down inches from the goal line. On the next play, UK quarterback Terry Wilson rolled out to pass.
Here it comes, swing number two.
Wilson threw a pick-six, 100-yard interception to give War Eagle a 14-8 lead.
But wait, there’s more. Swing number three.
The Tigers were called for targeting on the return, nullifying the score and ending the first half and leading 8-7.
In the second half, the Cats went away from what they did for success on offense. UK featured more of a passing attack that seemed very scattered in success. The Cats enjoyed a decided advantage up front behind their “Big Blue Wall” of offensive linemen all day, outmuscling the Tigers all game upfront. However, in the second half, the Cats playcalling seemed to go away from it, creating several long yards plays the Cats weren’t able to convert. Couple that with two costly fumbles and a botched fake punt and you have a recipe for disaster.
With the Cats either deep in their own territory offensively, the Cats defense played with their backs deep in their own territory for most of the second half, giving Auburn and star quarterback Bo Nix plenty of opportunities to find open Tiger receivers, which they did.
Buoyed by the run game, the Cats outgained the Tigers 384-324 and both in rushing (145-91) and passing (239-233). The hidden stat there is while Kentucky found most of its success offensively between the 20-yard lines and struggled inside the red zone, the Tigers, playing on a shortened field, made the plays when they needed to.
Overall, Wilson had a good day statistically. The senior completed 24-37 passes for 239 yards and a touchdown to go along with 42 yards rushing. However, his third-quarter fumble allowed the Tigers to score a touchdown and effectively put the game away.
It’s hard to place a lot of blame on the Kentucky defense. When given the opportunity to have room to manage, the Cats played well and forced five punts on the day. However, UK wasn’t able to get the big stop when they needed one in those short field situations.
Other than Wilson, there were individual bright spots for the Cats, including:
Kavosiey Smoke’s 63 yards rushing and a 35-yard touchdown scamper.
Receiver Josh Ali’s 98 yards receiving on nine catches.
All-American punter Max Duffy’s four punts for 212 yards, including a 75-yard monster.
Linebacker Jamin Davis’ five tackles, a sack, and a tackle for loss.
With the SEC schedule version of a ten-headed hydra, there is little time for the Cats to feel sorry for themselves. Awaiting them in Lexington next Saturday is the Ole Miss Rebels, a 51-35 loser to Florida in the debut game of the Lane Kiffin era in Oxford. The Rebels can put points on the board but have difficulties on defense stopping the ball.
If the Cats can continue to find success running the football and can get some of those timely stops on defense, there could be a different result at Kroger Field. Another tough second half and the Cats could be staring at a 0-2 mark.
Shane Shackleford is a regional sports columnist from Speedwell, Tenn. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and at A Sea of Blue, KySportsStyle.com Magazine and HarlanCountySports.com.