ATHENS, Georgia — If the bad guys ever attack, I want to take refuge on the 100-yard, emerald expanse that is Dooley Field at Sanford Stadium. It’s the best-defended patch of earth in America right now.
The football Wildcats found that out in person Saturday afternoon. They suspected as much, after watching video of the Georgia Bulldogs and studying their stats, which indicated that yards, much less points, would come both sparingly and grudgingly. That’s basically the story behind UGA 30, UK 13.
Defense is the primary reason the top-ranked Dawgs are still perfect through seven games; it WAS the reason the Cats had not stumbled through their first six. They lost for the first time because the Big Blue Wall could find no weakness in the Georgia defensive front, whatever its nickname might be, and because the home team gashed Kentucky for seven plays that went for 20 yards or more.
“Where can I start, other than that’s a very good football team?” Mark Stoops asked, rhetorically. “I want to give them the resect they deserve. Kirby (Smart) does one heck of a job. That’s a complete football team.”
One that all but completely shut down a Kentucky rushing attack that averaged more than 200 yards per game, prior to its trip to Athens. It managed just 72 on 27 carries, 51 when you figure in tackles-for-loss and three Bulldog sacks.
In lieu of a ground game, UK offensive coordinator Liam Coen had to empty the playbook, dialing up misdirection, reverses and other strategery that resulted in two actual touchdowns, matching the total number Georgia had surrendered thus far this season.
Any chance the Wildcats had at pulling off the upset melted away thanks to mistakes and missed opportunities. Perhaps the most glaring came on the final play of the scoreless first quarter. Georgia had driven to the UK 28 when Josh Paschal knocked the ball away from quarterback Stetson Bennett. As the Wildcats watched what they assumed was an incomplete pass skitter across the turf, Bennett alertly fell on what was ruled a fumble.
There it was – the rare Bulldog mistake, a free football just sitting there, ripe for the taking. But with the Cats merely looking on, a Dawg fell on it. One player later: Touchdown, Georgia and a 14-0 lead.
Will Levis hit on 32 of 42 passes for 192 yards but those numbers should have been much more impressive; his receivers dropped at least three catchable balls that would have helped keep offensive drives alive and enabled the UK defense, which didn’t get a whole lot of rest, on the sideline.
Levis did lead Kentucky on a 13-play, 75-yard drive in the second quarter that chewed up nearly seven minutes and pulled the Cats to within 14-7. But that was as close as the visitors would get.
It was all Georgia in the second half until the final seconds, when Kentucky – thanks to a timeout called by Stoops with seven seconds left – punched it in from the one-yard line, on a Levis-to-Wan’dale Robinson TD pass. It enabled anyone who had bet the Wildcats and taken the 24 points to cover the spread, simultaneously touching off a maelstrom of nasty Tweets, presumably by both Georgia fans and anyone who laid the points.
So Kentucky makes a bit of history by winning its first six, flirts with control of the SEC East and now gets a week off to rest and heal, double-digit victories still within its grasp. The Cats tangled with a Georgia team that lived up to the hype and hyperbole.
They’re not perfect any more, but they’ll have lots of opportunities in the coming weeks to prove they’re still special.