Three takeaways from Kentucky football's first loss of the season at No. 1 Georgia
ATHENS, Georgia — Kentucky football's moment in the national spotlight ended how most expected.
After keeping things close with No. 1 Georgia for a half, the No. 11 Wildcats were outscored 16-6 in the second half on the way to a 30-13 loss. The defeat was Kentucky's first of the season and gives Georgia control of the SEC East race.
Georgia's vaunted defense limited Kentucky to just 249 yards. Quarterback Will Levis completed 32 of 42 passes for 198 yards and two touchdowns, but the Wildcats gained just 51 yards on the ground. Kentucky failed to record a first down on 6 of 10 drives.
No. 11 Kentucky at No. 1 Georgia football:Bulldogs top Wildcats 30-13
Kentucky scored its second touchdown of the game on a 1-yard pass from Levis to Wan'Dale Robinson after Mark Stoops called a timeout with seven seconds left. Georgia's defense had not previously surrendered multiple touchdowns to a team this season.
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs amassed 416 yards. Freshman tight end Brock Bowers caught five passes for 101 yards and two touchdowns.
First-half mistake changes game
Kentucky held Georgia scoreless for just the second time this season, but a mistake on the final play of the first quarter gave the Bulldogs all the momentum they needed to take control of the game.
After UK senior defensive end Josh Pascal got a hand on Stetson Bennet’s arm as the Georgia quarterback prepared the throw the ball popped loose and rolled ahead. Assuming the play was an incomplete pass, Kentucky defenders failed to try to recover it. Instead, Georgia running back Kendall Milton chased after the ball and fell on it for a 9-yard gain as officials ruled the play a fumble. A replay confirmed the call.
On Georgia’s next play, the first play of the second quarter, Bennett hit running back James Cook on a pass over the middle that Cook took 19 yards for the game’s first touchdown.
A three-and-out followed for Kentucky’s offense. Georgia then needed just five plays to march 80 yards for a second touchdown and a 14-0 lead.
"There's no moral victories," Stoops said "I think the only thing is our team knows when we execute and do things well we can be a pretty good football team. We can't make mistakes against a great team."
Kentucky needs to recruit better wide receivers
UK coach Mark Stoops and recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow have made no secret in recent weeks of their desire to recruit a higher caliber of pass-catchers. Any doubt as to why the UK coaches had made that public plea became evident Saturday as four dropped passes contributed to Kentucky’s inability to sustain drives.
Trailing 21-7 in the third quarter, Kentucky missed two chances for first downs with drops from running back Chris Rodriguez and wide receiver Isaiah Epps on back-to-back plays. The Epps drop came on what would have been a 13-yard gain on third-and-7.
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For most of the first half of the season, Robinson was enough to carry Kentucky's passing game, but Georgia limited the SEC's leading receiver to 44 yards on 12 catches.
Four-star wide receivers Dane Key and Barion Brown are two of the Wildcats’ top remaining uncommitted targets in the 2022 class. Those players will not be able to help this season, but with Robinson likely to enter the NFL draft after the year, the need for immediate help in 2022 is clear.
“Holding people’s hands, those days are over,” Marrow recently told the Courier Journal. “We’ve got some guys – at least two or three guys that are left on our board at receiver – that if we get two of the three with all the guys we’ve got committed, we’re going to be pretty good.”
The good news was UK's tight ends and running backs combined for 15 catches in the game, though tight end Izayah Cumming suffered an arm injury on the final drive.
"We knew we couldn't just throw it to Wan'Dale every time," Levis said. "We have guys who are capable of making plays."
Time to reset with an off week
As evidenced by the 21.5-point spread, few gave Kentucky a chance to win in Athens Saturday, but the Wildcats could still be favored in each of their remaining five games.
To take advantage of that schedule, Kentucky must ensure the sting of the Georgia defeat does not linger. After losing to Georgia in a winner-take-all game for the SEC East title in 2018, The Wildcats posted their worst performance of an otherwise historic season a week later in a loss at Tennessee.
Thankfully for Kentucky, an off week next Saturday should lessen the chances of a Georgia hangover, but it also represents an opportunity to lose focus.
"Our team knows we have a good football team," Stoops said. "They know we can compete and do better than we did today. ... They know they belong. We have to regroup. Everything will be one-week seasons now."
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Kentucky will be a heavy favorite in home games against Vanderbilt and New Mexico State, but the home game against Tennessee and road games at Mississippi State and Louisville all have the potential to be stumbling blocks in the path to a double-digit win regular season. How Kentucky handles its off week will say much about the chances of avoiding those pitfalls.
The off week represents an important opportunity for several injured Kentucky players to gain some needed rest too. The next game at Mississippi State might be too soon for nose guard Marquan McCall to return, but wide receiver Josh Ali would be a much-needed boost if he can play in Starkville.
Email Jon Hale at firstname.lastname@example.org; Follow him on Twitter at @JonHale_CJ.