Kentucky took an L to the chin against Ole Miss. The overtime loss was devastating for a variety of reasons. It only becomes a more difficult pill to swallow once you take a look at the rest of the Wildcats’ schedule.
Mississippi State will come to Kroger Field in one week, a team that broke SEC records against the defending National Champions by playing an offense that’s no so different than the one that carved up UK Saturday evening. The following week Kentucky will travel to Knoxville to play a Top 25 Tennessee team that’s off to a 2-0 start for the first time in 25 years. A week later Kentucky will host Georgia, the owners of the SEC East who put a hurting on an Auburn team that defeated the Wildcats by two scores to open the season.
In a season where wins have never been harder to come by, Kentucky let one slip through its fingers. The Wildcats missed many opportunities, but the one people will not forget is Matt Ruffolo’s overtime PAT that went wide right.
“It’s a very difficult way to lose a football game. It’s been a crazy year and this season is going to be different. It’s going to be difficult playing a ten-game SEC schedule and games are going to be close. We have to make those plays in critical moments to win football games,” said head coach Mark Stoops.
“I was proud of the way — the game was a struggle, you knew it was going to be. We went through some patches where we overcame some adversity, got it into overtime and then to lose it that way is difficult.”
Similar to the season-opener against Auburn, self-inflicted adversity was the theme of the Ole Miss loss. It started on UK’s first offensive play from scrimmage when running back A.J. Rose prematurely celebrated a touchdown and was tackled before he reached the end zone. Two plays later, he fumbled the ball at the goal line. Even though Kentucky responded with a three-and-out and a touchdown on the ensuing possession, the Wildcats left points off the scoreboard.
It was not the only missed scoring opportunity for Kentucky. The Wildcats were on the precipice of taking a 14-point lead late in the third quarter when DeMarcus Harris streaked down the seam wide open toward the end zone. Terry Wilson under-threw the redshirt freshman, turning the easy touchdown into a contested catch. The ball still hit Harris in the hands, but was dropped near the ten yard-line. A few plays later Ruffolo missed a 49-yard field goal off the right upright.
“As I mentioned to our team, it was just — we have to find ways to execute better in critical moments. We did that for a large portion of the night. Anytime you rush the ball for 400 yards, you usually feel pretty good that you’re going to have an opportunity to win. This offense was extremely explosive, extremely fast, got ya off-kilter. This week and next week’s going to be like that. It’s a different style of offense. You have to get stops in critical moments. We did not play very good defense tonight. That’s on us. We have to get them in position to play better,” said Stoops.
“Offensively, I thought we did some good things at times; certainly controlled the game and ran the ball very well. Terry was efficient, 14-of-18, but we just gotta make plays in critical moments, gotta play better as a team to get these victories.”
The offense blundered scoring opportunities and the defense struggled to get stops in the second half. An Ole Miss touchdown was overturned and UK stuffed a speed option attempt on the following play at the goal line. The only other stop was on the final drive in regulation. A pass interference penalty and poor pass coverage let Ole Miss run free, averaging 8.8 yards per play after intermission.
The defense must regroup immediately. Lane Kiffin’s offense is cut from the same cloth as Mike Leach’s. Once the team returns to the practice field on Monday, it’s on the veterans to steer the ship back on track before the season spirals out of control.
“This is an older team. We can control what we can control,” said quarterback Terry Wilson. “We can control our mindset, our mentality, how we want to come out to practice and just not mope around. It sucks but we have to get better as a team and that should be everybody’s mindset right now. Coming off this loss, it’s tough, but I’m ready to forget about it and get ready for this week coming up.”
Most folks outside of the program will see tonight’s loss as a preview of what’s to come for the rest of the season. For those inside the program, they knew what they signed up for.
“Once we got the SEC schedule that announcement a couple months ago, we knew it was going to be hard,” Josh Paschal said after the game. “We knew it was going to be hard and we just have to bounce back. There’s going to be momentum swings throughout the season. You’re going to face adversity. We’re facing it right now. You’re really judged on how good of a team you are after you face adversity. We’re going through adversity right now. What matters is how we bounce back, how we prepare for this week against Mississippi State and really just how we go out and finish the season.”