Aaron Murray throws a pass against UK. (Photo by Jon Hale)
In the end, the only predictable part of UK’s loss to Georgia was the outcome.
No one predicted the Wildcats would lead the 26-point favorite Bulldogs in the third quarter. No one predicted senior quarterback Morgan Newton, who had gone from starter as a junior to fourth string halfway through his senior season, to run and throw for a touchdown. No one predicted the longest UK completion of the game would come from sophomore wide receiver Demarco Robinson to freshman quarterback Jalen Whitlow.
But that’s what happened as UK was unable to complete a second-half comeback in a 29-24 loss, which assured the Wildcats’ third consecutive losing season.
“No one can say this team is quitting,” said UK head coach Joker Phillips.
UK snapped a streak of 20 consecutive games without an offensive touchdown in the first quarter with a 13-play, 84-yard drive for a touchdown on the first possession of the game. Newton entered the game at quarterback in the red zone and completed a four-yard touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Aaron Boyd for the score.
Georgia tied the game on a 66-yard touchdown pass from Aaron Murray to Tavarres King just before the end of the first quarter, but the Wildcats immediately answered with another score.
The big play on the second UK scoring drive came when Whitlow lateraled to Robinson, who threw back across the field to Whitlow for a 33-yard gain. Newton scored on a two-yard run two plays later.
“I knew I’d be a part of the red zone package,” Newton said. “The offensive line did a great job protecting. The receivers did a good job catching the ball, making the play.”
The Bulldogs answered with another touchdown pass from Murray to King but missed the extra point to preserve the UK lead.
The two teams traded punts before Georgia kicker Marshall Morgan clanked in a 27-yard field goal off the left upright as time expired in the first half to give the Bulldogs a 16-14 lead.
The Wildcat magic carried over into the second half when senior Craig McIntosh connected on a 37-yard field goal to give UK a 17-16 lead, but Murray continued to exploit the Wildcat secondary featuring four true freshmen on a 62-yard touchdown drive to retake the lead.
UK appeared to have the ball with a chance to take the lead in the fourth quarter but was flagged for running into the kicker on a punt that preserved a Georgia drive that resulted in another touchdown. Replays showed UK defensive lineman Mike Douglas may have been blocked into the kicker by a Georgia player.
UK kept the game interesting with another touchdown, but kicker Joe Mansour was unable to recover his own onside kick and Whitlow was unable to execute a desperation play as time expired for what would have been the winning score.
“We played to win, but unfortunately we lost,” Whitlow said. “I think we can put this in our pocket and move on and work for next week.”
If moral victories exist, the performance represented several for UK.
The Wildcats held Georgia to 77 yards rushing and gained 206 yards on the ground themselves. After looking lost in the passing game in recent weeks, Whitlow was able to complete nine of 13 passes to keep the Georgia defense honest.
Junior tailback Jonathan George gained a career-high 87 yards on 12 carries, and Raymond Sanders added 72 yards on 18 carries.
Still, Murray torched the young UK secondary for 427 yards through the air, and King finished the game with nine catches for 188 yards and two touchdowns.
“We have to help the young guys out by getting some pressure on the quarterback, and then we can’t allow them to throw the ball over our heads,” Phillips said.
In recent weeks, UK offensive coordinator Randy Sanders has noted that the Wildcat offense with Whitlow at the helm has run several plays that weren’t even in the playbook.
That wasn’t the case Saturday as Whitlow was able to execute the game plan Sanders devised and repeatedly practiced this week.
“It was nice to look out there and not get any uh-os, any of those plays like ‘what in the world was that?’ he said. “For the most part, we got lined up in the right places, we didn’t forget any motions or send the wrong guy in motion. It looked like he had his eyes in the right place in the passing game.”
The loss dropped UK to 1-7 on the season and assured they would not reach a bowl game for the second consecutive season.
Still, players and coaches said there are goals left to play for.
“We’ve got some seniors in there. We’re motivated to play for those guys,” Phillips said.
George also noted the motivation of playing for his senior teammates, but his primary motivation for the rest of the season was much simpler.
“It’s all about pride now,” he said.