LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — This was a chance for the Kentucky football team to cement its spot in the top 25 by defeating a ranked opponent in its season opener for the first time in 18 seasons.
If you want to announce your serious intention to compete atop the Southeastern Conference's East Division, the opportunity was there.
By halftime, the challenge had grown for Mark Stoops’ team: Beat Auburn, the SEC officials and a string of blunders. That was too much for the Wildcats.
Kentucky started confidently, scoring first and converting on its first five third downs. But the Wildcats seemed to lose their mojo after the officiating blunder in the final minute of the first half.
Score it Auburn 29, Kentucky 13 with the crowd limited to 17,490 at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Alabama, because of restrictions required by the novel coronavirus.
A bad officiating call, an interception, a fumble and failed fake punt were more than the No. 23 Wildcats could handle. Kentucky out-gained Auburn 384-324, but the offense stalled in the second half, and the Wildcats committed three turnovers.
“I don’t know if it did,” Stoops said after the game when he was asked if the bad call stopped Kentucky's momentum in the second half. "Well, we can't let it.
“We came in at half knowing we were doing some very good things," he added. "And certainly our guys felt comfortable. They felt physical. And we knew it was going to be a tough game, a close game. Whether that affected us — I don’t know. We certainly didn’t get out to a fast start (in the second half). Two three-and-outs offensively really hurt us to start with.”
Normally, grumbling about officials is immature paranoia. They’re doing their best. They make mistakes. The mistakes go both ways over the course of a season.
This officiating mistake was stinging and deserving of further review.
Facing first down from the Auburn 2-yard line in the final 40 seconds of the second quarter, Kentucky gave the ball to running back Chris Rodriguez over the right guard.
Auburn defenders got their hands on Rodriguez at the 1-yard line, but he kept pumping his legs and pushing his shoulders, driving toward the goal line with textbook technique.
It certainly appeared that Rodriguez crossed the goal line — to everybody but the officials and the replay officials.
That’s the worst call I’ve seen. Kentucky had a TD.— Rich Brooks (@UKcoachbrooks) September 26, 2020
They ruled his momentum was stopped inside the 1. (Even Jordan Rodgers, the analyst on the SEC Network, questioned the call.)
"I don't understand it either," Stoops said. "He was clearly in. I really can't give a good explanation. I didn't really get good explanations all day."
No touchdown. Not in real time. Wrong. But it can happen.
No touchdown. Not on review. Also wrong. Very wrong. That should not happen.
Second down. A sneak by quarterback Terry Wilson failed to reach the end zone. No review needed for that.
With 26 seconds remaining, Wilson fired a pass into the end zone. Roger McCreary intercepted for Auburn. He ran. And ran. And ran.
In fact, McCreary ran for 100 yards. Hold the celebration. As officials checked the replay to determine if McCreary had stepped out of bounds, they discovered another violation — a targeting foul on a block near midfield.
Take the Auburn points off the board. This time Auburn coach Gus Malzahn had reason to throw his visor.
"I hope like crazy that’s a common sense call," Malzahn told Cole Cubelic of the SEC Network at halftime.
Write this down: Both coaching staffs have video they’ll express mail to the league office on Sunday.
Wilson will also need to study the video. Although he completed 24 of 37 passes for 239 yards and a touchdown while running for 42 yards, Wilson had a unforced fumble. And that interception. Kentucky's seven second-half drives resulted in one touchdown, three punts, two fumbles and one turnover on downs.
Not good enough to beat the No. 8 team in the nation.
The Wildcats opened with poise and precision on offense. Wilson directed an 11-play, 93-yard drive to push the Wildcats ahead, 7-0. Halfback Kavosiey Smoke scored the season’s first touchdown on a 35-yard run.
The Wildcats converted on third down three times, including a third-and-8 as well as a third-and-9.
Auburn responded in 2 minutes and 14 seconds. D.J. Williams scored from the 1-yard line. Malzahn has never flinched from using trick plays — and he called one of the extra point.
They call the play the "Swinging Gate." Nearly the entire offensive line set up on the left side of the field. Backup quarterback Grant Loy took the snap and completed the 3-yard pass to tight end John Samuel Shenker for the 2-point conversion.
Auburn stretched it lead to 15-7 midway through the third quarter on an 11-yard touchdown pass from Bo Nix to Seth Williams, who is a solid 6 feet 3.
"They have a wideout (Williams) who is an absolute monster," Stoops said. "He's hard to match up with."
The Wildcats responded. Kentucky went 73 yards on 11 plays, including two more third-down conversions. In fact, Terry Wilson found Akeem Hayes for an 8-yard touchdown on third down.
Go for two?
Wilson rolled right. He looked into the end zone. He kept rolling. He looked into the end zone. Nobody open. So he threw the ball away.
Wilson’s second turnover led to Auburn’s next points. He fumbled the ball over to Auburn at the UK 30-yard line early in the fourth quarter. The Tigers scored on 4-yard TD pass from Nix to Williams.
Another Kentucky blunder followed. Punter Max Duffy appeared to audible, scrapping the punt while trying to run for 5 yards on fourth down.
Duffy lost 3 yards.
"That was a situation that was a read," Stoops said. "That's not on Max. That's on us."
Auburn needed two plays to score. Nix threw his third TD pass, a 21-yard strike to Eli Stove with 8:17 to play.
That was that.
The Wildcats return to Kroger Field for consecutive home games.
At 4 p.m. on Oct. 3, Kentucky will host Ole Miss, which lost to Florida, 51-35, on Saturday. Then, on Oct. 10, the Wildcats will welcome Mississippi State, which opened against defending national champion Louisiana State.
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