LEXINGTON – The good news AND bad news for the Kentucky Wildcats coming off of Saturday’s 27-13 loss to No. 7 Louisville is one and the same – Kentucky had a golden opportunity to win this game.
Not just hang in there – not just avoid a deflating loss to arguably the best team Louisville has ever had – but actually flat out beat the Cardinals.
It pretty well defines the glass is half full or half empty theme. Where your outlook falls about this game probably has something to do with your attitude in general.
All we know for sure is a Kentucky win over Louisville would have been easily the biggest victory for the Wildcats since the 43-37, three-overtime win over then No. 1-ranked LSU in 2007.
And it would have dealt a devastating blow Louisville’s hopes and dreams.
THAT part is the bad news for Kentucky.
The Wildcats didn’t finish the job, but only because Kentucky simply doesn’t yet have the maturity and experience to make it happen.
The good news is the Wildcats do, arguably, have the talent.
This may well be most talent UK has had since the ‘07 bunch, but that Rich Brooks team had so much more maturity – the kind you need to stop LSU on a fourth-and-2 play with the game on the line.
In Saturday’s loss to 3-0 Louisville, there were just too many mistakes, too many dropped passes that more experienced receivers would make, too many bad passes
from quarterbacks Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow (too many bad decisions as well), and too many turnovers – two.
Specifically, there was one turnover by the Wildcats that trumped every other mistake.
It came late in the first half after the Cardinals’ offense woke up and scored to go on top, 10-3, with 2:36 to go.
The Wildcats started the last drive of the half on their own 25-yard-line and took it to the Louisville 14 with about a minute left in the period.
The big play was a pass from Smith to freshman wide receiver Jeff Badet that went for 27 yards.
But on the next play, Smith and senior running back Raymond Sanders had a mixup in the backfield and fumbled the ball over to the Cardinals.
With a clean handoff, Sanders likely walks in for the touchdown. Without the fumble, UK is no worse off than second-and-10 at the 14.
“That was crucial,” UK offensive coordinator Neal Brown said of the fumble. “Crucial. Obviously we had some momentum going there and had the opportunity to go in and tie the game at the half.
“Our defense had fought hard and played well enough for us to be tied at the half.”
Brown said he was not sure why the play broke down.
“It was a combo play,” Brown said. “He (Smith) had the run-pass option, and he chose to run it, and they missed the exchange.
“I really don’t know what happened,” Smith said. “It was supposed to be a run play. It could be my fault, or it could be his (Sanders). The film will tell all.”
The Cardinals then took the second-half kickoff, found their long-lost running game, and drove 83 yards in nine plays for a touchdown that put the visitors up by a commanding 17-3.
Louisville eventually stretched the margin to 27-6 against a tiring Kentucky defense.
But the Wildcats never seemed to lose their will, and actually had two or three chances down the stretch to really put some pressure on the Cardinals.
But they couldn’t sustain success.
I’ll leave you with this ray of hope as UK moves into a bye week and then hosts Florida on Sept. 28: In just two weeks, the Wildcats have improved dramatically, since the dismal 35-26 season-opening loss to Western Kentucky.
Most notably UK defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot has performed something just shy of a miracle on his side of the ball.
Louisville finished with 492 yards of total offense Saturday, but nearly 350 of those yards came after halftime when Kentucky’s defense wore down because it was on the field too long in the first half.
Senior linebacker Avery Williamson had another great game for the Wildcats, finishing with 15 tackles.
The UK offense, though still maddeningly inconsistent, again showed flashes of scary potential.
Freshman running back Jojo Kemp was a revelation, gaining 80 yards on just five carries.
“He gave us a big-time spark,” Brown said of Kemp. “That’s the best he’s looked since he’s been here. He hasn’t shown that in practice. Now that I’ve seen that in a game, I understand he has that in him.”
“Jojo has got to see more time ... he does,’’ Stoops said.
Juco transfer Javess Blue is turning into a star in a hurry for the Wildcats. Blue caught six passes for 58 yards Saturday, and had 134 yards in kick returns.
Franklin County graduate Ryan Timmons caught three passes for 72 yards and ran two times for 13 more.
“I think we did a great job with Louisville,” Timmons said. “I mean, they’re a great team. But, we were in the game. Even when we played bad, we were still in the game.”
Brown said the fixes that need to be made offensively are not major.
“Everybody thinks you have to make great plays on offense, but all you have to do is make consistent, routine plays,” Brown said.
Brown referred to Kentucky’s 0-for-13 on third down plays as an example.
“We were poor on third down, no question about it, but where we lost it was on first down,” he said. “That’s where we had our drops ... our missed opportunities.”
“Until we start making the routine plays, we’re going to have a hard time beating a top 10 team,” Stoops said.
“Honestly, I think we’re getting better,” he added. “Obviously I’m disappointed with this loss, but I’m not discouraged.”
To view a photo gallery from Saturday's game, click here.