By LARRY VAUGHT
ATHENS, Ga. — The final score will not indicate to others how Kentucky played at Georgia Saturday, but the Cats earned my respect.
This was a game very few expected you to have any chance to win (kind of similar to last year at Louisville when the Cats stunned the Cards).
Georgia won 42-13 thanks to its normal punishing ground game that produced 381yards (the Bulldogs had five players with a run of 21 more yards, UK’s longest run was 12 yards). But give Kentucky credit for playing like it thought it could win. Sure, the team missed too many tackles, had a couple of key dropped passes and couldn’t get the ball into the end zone early when it had chances.
However, coach Mark Stoops was not afraid to roll the dice. He turned Lonnie Johnson loose to try and block a punt that turned into a roughing the punter call that enabled Georgia to drive for a touchdown. But Stoops showed he was playing to win, not just get the ball back.
“That was a tough possession. We got the penalty and it demoralized our defense after getting a three-and-out,” Stoops said on the UK Radio Network after the game. “We did feel like we had the opportunity with the block and it backfired on us. We felt like we had to (take chances). We wanted to put some pressure on him, but it certainly didn’t work. I am second guessing myself on that because you want that ball back. But you knew to stay in it, we had to be aggressive.”
Stoops went for a touchdown late in the first half than trying a 51-yard field goal on fourth-and-two. Trailing 21-6, I’ll give Stoops credit for knowing field goals were not going to win the game.
“There was no guarantee you are going to make that. I just wanted to try and get a score (touchdown) there,” Stoops said.
Kentucky opened the second half with a 75-yard scoring drive that featured key runs by Benny Snell — who else — and big catches from Tavin Richardson and C.J. Conrad to trim the lead to 21-13.
I didn’t even have a problem with letting freshman Lynn Bowden throw the bomb out of the Wildcat formation to Garrett Johnson with UK down 28-13 even if the ball did get intercepted.
Georgia was the best team UK has played this season and Athens is not a place UK wins often. The Cats won there in 1977 and didn’t do it again until 2009. Kentucky has not done it again since and Georgia dominated the game after UK cut the lead to 21-13 to open the second half.
Benny Snell was UK’s star. The sophomore running back gets overshadowed in the SEC by Georgia’s Nick Chubb (151 yards and two scores) and Sony Michel (87 yards, three scores). “They are exceptional backs,” Stoops said after the game. “Their backs are just really talented. Very physical guys and ran around us and through us. That’s just a great recipe to win for them.”
Snell ran nasty and angry. He finished the game with 93 tough yards — “He earned all this yards,” Stoops said — and another score.
“I think as a team we just made little mistakes. They took advantage of those plays. I can’t say much. I know the offense tried,” Snell said on the UK Radio Network after the game. “We tried to make it a dogfight but there was a time they were just clicking. They do have athletes out there. I think they (Georgia players) were expecting it to be easy, but it wasn’t.”
Georgia amassed 504 total yards to just 262 for Kentucky.
Kentucky’s problem was that it had defenders in position often to make plays and they just could not do so and in the second half the Bulldogs got their running game to the edge time after time. But this is a team used to winning. Kentucky’s senior class now has won 38 games. It has 31 seniors on the roster. Bottom line — Georgia is still just too good for Kentucky like it has been every other team except Auburn this year. Georgia could also still find itself in the national championship playoffs if it beats Georgia Tech to end the regular season and then knocks off either Auburn or Alabama in the SEC championship game.
“Give Georgia credit. They played like the No. 1 team in the country tonight,” Stoops told Tom Leach on the UK Radio Network. “I was disappointed that we let some opportunities slip away, especially early. But you just have to credit Georgia for how it played. They took a tough loss a week ago (to Auburn) and they came out and played very good football and put a lot of pressure on us.
“Now it is the same situation for us. We have to regroup and continue to build on the good things and get some things corrected heading into the Louisville week.”
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One concern going into the final regular-season game against Louisville will be the health of several key players. Safety Mike Edwards went out early with a hip pointer He returned and had four tackles but was never a factor the rest of the game. Freshman nose guard Quinton Bohanna also went out early with an ankle injury, came back and then missed the entire second half. Linebacker Denzil Ware was also limited again because of nagging injuries going into the game.
Tight end C.J. Conrad injured his foot in the second half and was in a boot and on crutches the after the game. Quarterback Stephen Johnson, who was already banged up, took several more shots. He told media members after the game, though, that his pride was hurt more than anything else.
Louisville likely will be a 7-point favorite or maybe more in the game when the betting line is set. The Cards are ranked higher by Jeff Sagarin’s ratings than South Carolina, the best team UK has defeated this year.
Stoops told his players after the game he expects them to “respond the right way” for Louisville.
“You own it. There’s nowhere to run or hide,” Stoops said.