BOZICH | One close call too many as Kentucky loses to Ole Miss, 37-34
The Kentucky football team has not done anything easily this season -- and that trend continued Saturday when the Wildcats hosts Ole Miss at Kroger Field.
LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) – Now I understand why people have been slow to get gaga about this University of Kentucky football team, the one that did something UK football teams never do – become bowl eligible in October.
The Wildcats are 6-3 but their critics gained more reasons to howl as if they’re 3-6. Why? They spit out a 10-point third quarter lead as well as a four-point lead in the final two minutes and lost to sagging Mississippi, 37-34, Saturday at Kroger Field. There goes their chance to wiggle into Top 25 consideration.
"The bottom line is we didn't make enough plays at critical moments," UK coach Mark Stoops said. "They did .. It's a difficult loss.
"It's a team loss. Each phase had a chance to make a difference and we didn't do it."
"I'm not going to lie to you, it hurts," UK linebacker Josh Allen said.
Last week there was last-second exhilaration as the Wildcats survived the game’s final play. The Wildcats exhaled as Tennessee passed the football to the Kentucky 3 yard line on the game’s final play before the Wildcats won, 29-26.
Kentucky's year of living dangerously did not work out as planned against the Rebels, who had lost four of their first five Southeastern Conference games.
After marching 95 yards (with Benny Snell running for 77 of them) to slip ahead of Ole Miss, 34-30, with 2:14 to play, the Kentucky defense failed to make the big stop, the big turnover, the big delivery.
There will be second-guessing as well as frame-by-frame analysis of two critical plays in the final 20 seconds. Both were reviewed. Both went against Kentucky, one being overturned after initially it appeared it was time for the Wildcats to celebrate.
The first was a run by Ole Miss quarterback Jordan Ta’Amu. Surging into the middle of the defense, Ta’Amu appeared bound for the end zone until he was toppled by Kentucky safety Mike Edwards.
The quarterback flipped to the ground. When he landed the ball popped into the air, where Kentucky Kendall Randolph snatched it.
Not so fast. A replay review determined that the fumble was caused by contact with the turf.
UK quarterback Stephen Johnson said he was not surprised by the decision.
"Not at all," Johnson said. "We knew watching it (on the replay board) that it just seemed like (the ball) was connected to his hand ... It looked like he had it until he hit the ground."
"I thought we had it won with the fumble," Stoops said.
Ole Miss ball at the UK 7. The Rebels threw two incomplete passes before they took a third shot in the left corner of the end zone. D.K. Metcalf, who is listed at 6 feet 4, soared over UK defensive back Lonnie Johnson, who is listed at 6-3, to make a difficult catch with five seconds to play.
"I thought the last play there Lonnie played it good," Stoops said. "He was getting physical, he was in good shape. You've got to strip it out. He went up and got it in by inches. We've just go to finish it all the way to the ground."
Ball game? Yes, it was. The official ruled Metcalf landed with a foot inbounds -- and replay confirmed it.
Honk if you’ve seen this a few times this team. The Wildcats look as if they ready to win by two or three touchdowns and then the game comes down to two or three plays. They get ahead, but they cannot stay ahead, at least not with any breathing room.
They struggle with Eastern Kentucky, they struggle with Missouri, they struggle with too many teams.
Ole Miss is the worst defensive team in the Southeastern Conference. There are statistics to prove it.
The Rebels came to Lexington ranked last in the SEC in scoring defense, last in total defense and last in rushing defense. Five consecutive teams had scored at least 35 on Ole Miss – and that list includes Vanderbilt.
Kentucky scored 34. Critics will note that after Kentucky pushed to a 27-17 lead less than three minutes into the third quarter, the Wildcats punting after three offensive plays on four consecutive possessions, managing only 5, 2, 3 and 4 (total 14) yards on those drives. After completing 17 of his first 18 throws, Johnson finished 19 of 24 for 204 yards.
"If I convert on some third downs and we don't go three-and-out, we win the game," Johnson said.
"There was one drop in there that I remember that stuck out," Stoops said. "Then we just got off balance."
Somebody asked UK offensive coordinator Eddie Gran if there was anything he would have done differently, especially after the Wildcat built that lead in the third quarter. Halfback Benny Snell led the Wildcats with 176 yards and three more touchdowns, carrying the ball 28 times.
"To go back and say you'd do the same thing would be ridiculous," Gran said. "Our job is to score points."
Of course, Ole Miss was not the only team with a unit ranked last in the SEC. Kentucky’s pass defense also has issues. Not enough pressure. Coverage breakdowns. Receivers slipping away from cornerbacks and pass the safeties.
Ole Miss threw the football as if Archie Manning was taking snaps. Credit the Rebels with 382 of their 473 yards in the passing game. That was 44 yards per game more than the Rebels average throwing the football.
"Back to work," Stoops said. "You know, there's only so many things you can do. I mean, we tried rolling it. We tried playing zone. We tried playing man. We tried pressing. We tried playing off. We tried a bit of everything."
Now Kentucky goes to Vanderbilt Saturday. The Commodores improved to 4-5 by defeating Western Kentucky Saturday and likely understand they must defeat Kentucky is they expect to become bowl eligible.
Then comes a trip to unbeaten and top-ranked (in the playoff poll) Georgia, followed by the season-ending home game against Louisville.
If Kentucky finishes 6-6 (with four straight losses) there will grumbling. If they finish 7-5, that's what many predicted before the season. It they get to 8-4, there should be celebrating.
The Wildcats are already bowl eligible, but they could use a signature victory -- as well as a little less living on the edge in every game.
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