Kentucky came up short in the Taxslayer Bowl. Georgia Tech beat the Cats 33-18 behind a veteran defensive line and an efficient Flex-Bone offense. The game was chippy and poorly officiated.
Saturday was reminiscent of the Wildcat’s early November game against another opponent from the Peach State, which led to a frustrating ending from losing to a beatable opponent. But, win with class-lose with class. Give Tech credit for doing what it had to do in order to secure its spot on the trophy stage.
Let’s take a look:
Georgia Tech had not demonstrated traits of being a dominant defense in 2016. On Saturday; at times it was. The Cats could not find a rhythm as the Yellow Jacket secondary and linebackers presented atypical pre-snap blitz reads for Stephen Johnson.
Stephen Johnson’s 1st quarter fumble resulted in yet another scoop and score which marked Georgia Tech’s 41st point off turnover in its past 13 quarters.
The game’s most critical play came on a Red Zone; 4th and 1 with the outcome very much still up for grabs. With momentum at its back, the Wildcats hurriedly ran JoJo Kemp straight at the Yellow Jacket defense that had to make little adjustment for the stop. The 4th down conversion failed; UK never recovered.
Uncharacteristically, Kentucky’s offensive line did not execute or play at the high level that the BBN had grown accustom to over the season’s final 9 contests.
The Cats’ opponent entered Saturday ranked 114th in the nation by accumulating just 16 QB sacks. It also ranked 121st in America with 53 tackles for loss. Result: white jerseys lived in Kentucky’s backfield.
Ineffective pass blocking bled over into the run game where nation’s 16th ranked rushing attack fell short of expectation in Jacksonville. Tech held UK to 92 yards below its season average.
For a month we discussed Ga Tech’s veteran defensive line that consisted of 4 starters that had 4 years or more in the program (1 redshirt junior, 3 redshirt seniors). At times; Kentucky’s freshmen and sophomore offensive linemen played like, well freshmen and sophomores. Fixable; yet frustrating on Saturday. But, the season’s body of work up front displayed sufficient tendencies to not be concerned about its performance in an exhibition game.
The Wildcats won 7 games in 2016 by being the aggressor. This was not the case in the Taxslayer Bowl.
UK By the Numbers
- Scored: 18 points
- Rush: 36 carries, 149 yards. Cats averaged 241 yards and over 5.5 yards per carry for the season.
- Yards per rush: 4.1
- Pass: 19/34, 175 yards, 1 TD
- Total Yards: 324. UK average-428.
- Time of Possession: 27:38
- First Downs: 20
- Third Down: 6/16. Ga Tech was allowing 50% going into Saturday.
If you would have told me a week ago that Kentucky’s defense would allow 26 points including a cheap field goal after a blocked punt and I would have bet a can of potted meat that the Cats would have been driving north with a trophy. That was not the case.
The Wildcat defense played good enough to win the football game. Matter of fact; I left EverBank Field proud of Mark Stoops’ young collection of defenders and excited to see its upcoming development. However, it got very little help from the offense and special teams. Example; Tech averaged 30:07 in time of possession; it surpassed 32 minutes. Regardless; a month’s concern over slowing the triple option was proven to be imprecise in the grand scheme of the 2016 Taxslayer Bowl.
This especially applies when you consider that 2 starting defensive linemen suffered 1st quarter injuries which forced true freshman defensive end TJ Carter and sophomore Tymere Dubose into early and extended duty. Think about that for a minute; a true freshman DE and a reserve DT had to battle a redshirt senior quarterback operating a unique and complicated offensive system on a huge stage. Both have bright futures in Lexington and played valiantly. Progress and player development personified.
Reality states that Kentucky held Georgia Tech to 64 yards less than its season average. Field position favored the Jackets for 60 minutes. This developed due to UK’s porous punting (34 yards per kick), allowing longer than average kick returns (24 yards per), and special team’s penalties.
GT By the Numbers
- Scoring: 26 points
- Rush: 266 yards
- Yards per rush: 5.2
- Pass: 6/14, 105
- Total Yards: 371
- Time of Possession: 32:22
- Turnovers: Zero
- Third Down: 5/13
Grant McKinniss: 3 punts, 34-yard average. The punt team, along with its punter have to show vast improvement as we move towards 2017.
Kickoff team wasn’t a great deal better. Miles Butler’s late, 4th quarter kickoff bounced directly into the arms of an awaiting returner who smartly signaled for a fair catch. Game over.
What Does This All Mean?
Kentucky finished 2016 with a 7-6 record after winning the Governor’s Cup at Louisville and finished with a .500 SEC record. The Cats beat South Carolina for a 3rd consecutive time and defeated Dan Mullen’s Mississippi State Bulldogs for the first time in 7 years. The reward was a New Year’s bowl game.
UK also lost to Southern Miss at home and was annihilated and embarrassed a week later in the Swamp. The Wildcats then proceeded to fall behind to New Mexico State at home while losing its starting quarterback. The result was still a New Year’s bowl game.
Losing to Georgia Tech stung; no pun intended. But, I have a hard time feeling dejected after hopping on the Big Blue roller coaster for an exhilarating four month ride. The Kentucky Football program is absolutely going in the right direction. Recruiting is rolling. Momentum is growing.
So, what’s next? If anything, we’ve learned that we can trust Mark Stoops at his word as the Youngstown native leans more toward actuality than cheerleading.
Was the team ready to play, was preparation adequate? Yes categorically; bowl games are weird. The young Cats played a good, full-strength, ACC football team from arguably the best conference in college football in its first bowl game in 6 years. Let me declare myself as sunshine pumper before some feel the need to respond to call me such. But, I’m not a sunshine pumper without data or statistics to support opinion. Stoops returns 19/22 starters and a wealth of young talent that is only going to be improved next season.
As I just told the team, we’re extremely disappointed with the way we finished in losing this game. But I’m very proud of them. That’s a great group to coach. There’s a lot to build on. I’m very excited about the future.
We return a whole bunch of football players. They deserve a little bit of time off right now, then we’ll get back to work when we get back when the second semester begins. But I’m proud of this team, their efforts, everything that we’ve asked them to do.”
I tend to agree with Stoops.
We loved Jacksonville. The bowl experience was tremendous. Happy New Year. See you on National Signing Day.