After months of questions regarding the college football season and whether games will actually take place, the Kentucky Wildcats found themselves in a premier top-25 matchup at No. 8 Auburn to kick off the SEC slate.
Seen as a trendy upset pick going into the day, the Wildcats found themselves in position to win going into the fourth quarter, and actually ended the game with more passing and rushing yards, first downs, fewer penalties, and dominated time of possession (36:29-23:31).
With controversial calls, head-scratching decisions, and costly turnovers, though, the Wildcats were outmatched and outplayed down the stretch, falling to the Tigers by a final score of 29-13.
So how did the momentum shift and eventual loss come to fruition?
After forcing a punt on the first drive, the Kentucky offensive line found immediate success against the Auburn front seven, allowing for several chunk runs and solid pickups – notably a 23-yard catch from Josh Ali – to move the chains and coast down the field. Kavosiey Smoke would ultimately break the game open with a 35-yard touchdown run to cap off the flawless 11-play, 93-yard drive in just over six minutes of action.
In response, Auburn picked up the tempo and gashed the Wildcat defense the next time out, driving down the field 70 yards in seven plays, capped off by a one-yard touchdown run by D.J. Williams and a surprise two-point conversion to put the Tigers up 8-7 with 4:30 to go in the first quarter.
After the Wildcats failed to convert on fourth down at the Auburn 39 on the ensuing drive, the Tigers took back over and cruised down the field looking poised for another easy touchdown score. On a crucial 4th and 1 at the UK 16, UK linebacker DeAndre Square – sporting Chris Oats’ jersey, no less – came in for a massive stop at the line of scrimmage, allowing the Cats to take over the ball and momentum.
Driving down the field, Kentucky found themselves with a 1st and 10 at the Auburn 30, primed to put points on the board down 8-7. UK quarterback Terry Wilson completed an eight-yard pass to AJ Rose in the flat, which was called back due to holding by tight end Keaton Upshaw. A 2nd and 8 turned into a 1st and 20, followed by a four-yard loss on a completion to Rose, a four-yard loss on a sack, and an incompletion.
Instead of finding themselves at the Auburn 22 following Rose’s first-down reception, they were pushed back to the 48 and forced to punt. Crucial mistake number one.
After leaving points on the field the first time around, Kentucky gave a whole new meaning to the phrase its next time down the field. Starting at the UK 35 with 4:20 to go in the half, the Wildcats put together a gorgeous start to the drive, milking time off the clock and chipping their way down the field to the Auburn 2. Out of the Wildcat on 1st and Goal, Chris Rodriguez fought forward and pushed past the goal line – his whole freakin’ body was in the end zone, mind you – for the should-be touchdown score.
Before celebrating the lead going into half, the officiating crew called the power back just short of the goal line before announcing the play was under review.
A clear, easy replay should lead to an overturned call, right?
Upon review, the replay officials inexplicably let the call stand, leaving the Wildcats with a 2nd and goal from the one-inch line.
It was a decision from the officiating crew that left Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops scratching his head.
“I don’t understand it either,” Stoops said after the game. “He was clearly in. I really can’t give a good explanation. I didn’t really get good explanations all day. I don’t know if it’s us wearing these masks and all that, I don’t know. But that was a big swing.”
After a failed QB sneak attempt, Wilson was picked off in the end zone on an overthrow to Rodriguez, which was returned back to the opposite end zone with just seconds to go in the half, a nightmare scenario on all fronts. Mistake two.
To put a bandaid on the brutal wound, Kentucky was luckily bailed out by a targeting call on the return, taking Auburn’s score off the board and turning the potential 14-point swing into a kneel-down for Tiger quarterback Bo Nix. Still, though, a likely 14-8 lead going into half for the Wildcats – potentially more if UK converted in scoring territory the drive before – was flipped to a momentum-crushing pick and one-point deficit at intermission.
After the break, it was apparent the end-of-half woes lingered for the Wildcat offense, as they went three-and-out on back-to-back drives to open the third quarter, picking up just one yard in six plays. To make matters worse, the Auburn offense quickly found its groove again, pushing down the field on a nine-play, 76-yard touchdown drive in just over four minutes, with star receiver Seth Williams pulling off the sensational 11-yard catch for his first score of the afternoon.
Down 15-7, the Wildcats responded with a strong drive of their own, led by two catches for redshirt freshman Akeem Hayes, with the second being an eight-yard touchdown snag on a crossing route in the middle of the end zone. Kentucky failed to convert on its two-point conversion attempt to tie the game, but they still sat behind by just two points at 15-13 to close out the third quarter.
After forcing a massive three-and-out, the Wildcats had an opportunity to drive down the field and take the lead for the first time since late in the first. Instead, Wilson fumbled on a critical 3rd and 4 scramble attempt, recovered by the Tigers on the UK 23. Mistake number three, and it would turn out to be the most devastating for Kentucky’s upset chances.
Five plays later, Nix found Williams in the end zone for a four-yard touchdown, with the superstar wideout adding insult to injury by pushing aside UK cornerback Kelvin Joseph and flexing in his face with his team up 22-13 with 10:21 to go in the fourth quarter.
With Kentucky on its last leg, the Wildcats moved forward just five yards in three plays, followed by a questionable punt fake attempt by Max Duffy. On 4th and 5 from the UK 30, Duffy rolled right and made a run for it, getting tackled three yards behind the line of scrimmage for the turnover. Mistake four.
Two plays later, UK outside linebacker Jordan Wright got burned on a 21-yard pitch and catch from Nix to Eli Stove to put the Tigers up 29-13, effectively ending the game with 8:17 to go in the fourth.
Two punts, a fumble, and a kneel-down later, that 29-13 loss became official, leaving Kentucky empty-handed in its quest for a victory to open the season.
“Disappointed with the outcome,” Stoops told reporters after the game. “Did some really good things in this game, and did some things that we have to improve on. Made too many mistakes to beat a quality team like Auburn on the road. There’s things all of us need to do better. Two, three, four plays that can swing a game, certainly a five-minute span there we turned it over essentially twice with the fumble and the fake punt.”
To close out the game, Terry Wilson finished with 239 passing yards, one touchdown, and one interception on 24/37 passing, along with 42 rushing yards on a team-high 13 total carries.
Kavosiey Smoke led the way with 62 yards and one touchdown on seven carries, followed by AJ Rose with 31 yards and Chris Rodriguez with 13 yards.
Josh Ali led Kentucky’s receiving unit with 98 yards on nine receptions, followed by Allen Dailey Jr. with 42 yards on two catches, Rose with 37 yards on four catches, DeMarcus Harris with 25 yards on four catches, and Akeem Hayes with 24 yards and a touchdown on two catches.
For the Tigers, Bo Nix finished with 233 yards and three touchdowns on 16/27 passing, while Seth Williams added 112 receiving yards and two touchdowns on six receptions.
Talent-wise, the difference between teams was not significant. In the trenches, the Kentucky offensive line dominated against Auburn’s front seven, regularly creating open rushing lanes for Wilson and UK’s trio of standout running backs. As for the Wildcat defense, they held firm for the majority of the game, coming up with numerous key stops to force punts and turnovers on downs. Auburn’s playmakers on the outside are superior, but Kentucky had more than enough talent from top to bottom to compete.
As for execution in crunch time, that’s another story, with Kentucky coming up short in scoring opportunities and making game-changing mistakes. Down just two points with the ball at the 13-minute mark in the fourth quarter, the Wildcats had every opportunity to pull off the road upset.
Instead, those mistakes allowed for 14 points in 4:17 for Auburn with eight minutes to go, putting the game out of reach and solidifying the season-opening loss for the Wildcats.
Kentucky will look to get in the win column next Saturday with a home matchup against Ole Miss at Kroger Field.