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Keith Taylor: Window of opportunity smaller for Kentucky after 52-21 blowout loss to Tennessee


By Keith Taylor
KyForward sports writer

The losses are piling up and the window of opportunity is getting smaller for Kentucky.

For the second straight week, the Wildcats (4-4, 2-4 Southeastern Conference) lost and the margin wasn’t even close, dropping a 52-21 setback to rival Tennessee Saturday night.

 Kentucky running back Mikel Horton gets tackled by a Tennessee defender Saturday night (UK Athletics Photo)

Kentucky running back Mikel Horton gets tackled by a Tennessee defender Saturday night (UK Athletics Photo)

As if a 42-16 loss at Mississippi State last week wasn’t demoralizing enough, the Volunteers dealt another punch in the gut to the Wildcats, who now find themselves limping going into the final month of the season, scrambling to become bowl eligible for the first time in five years.

In what many considered a winnable game against the Volunteers, it was a performance that left Kentucky coach Mark Stoops visibly upset.

“It’s not acceptable,” he said. “It’s not OK. And (I’m) not very pleased. There are a lot of things that we need to do better and we will. It starts with me. I’ve got to do a better job of getting the team prepared (and) our coaches prepared.

“I’m very frustrated, very ticked off the way we played. We have got to play better than that, and we will play better than that and we will go back to work.”

Tennessee (4-4, 2-3) wasn’t spooked by Kentucky’s offense, defense or special teams, dominating the Wildcats in all three phases of the game, resulting in a double-digit loss for the hosts. The Volunteers’ lone mistake was a fumble in the first quarter, resulting in a 77-yard touchdown run by Kentucky defensive lineman Corey Johnson.

From that point on, it was all Tennessee.

Following a 1-yard touchdown run by Kentucky quarterback Patrick Towles early in the second quarter that gave the Wildcats a 14-10 lead, the Volunteers scored on their last two possessions of the first half to gain control and poured it on in the third quarter. Tennessee crossed the goal line four times to open the second half, adding insult to injury.

“Give them credit, they beat our butts in all phases,” Stoops said. “They were much more physical than us. We’ve got to play with a lot stronger attitude and mentality than that.”

Kentucky has lost to Tennessee by a combined margin of 102-37 for the past two seasons, not exactly what the Wildcats hoped for after ending a 26-game losing streak to the Vols in 2011. Counting Saturday’s Halloween night disaster, Tennessee has won 30 of the past 31 games between the two border rivals.

Like last year when Kentucky lost six in a row to finish 5-7, the Wildcats haven’t had a good start to the second half of the season with back-to-back double-digit losses, but the players aren’t worried about a duplicate ending.

“If something bad happens you have to get over it and move on to the next play,” Kentucky cornerback Marcus McClinton said. “Last year is in the past. This game is over now and you all saw the score, but it’s definitely not who we are.”

The Wildcats won four of the first six games, all determined by a margin of eight points or less to open Stoops’ third season, but signs of future struggles were obvious at the time. Kentucky needed overtime to fend off Eastern Kentucky, while a win South Carolina wasn’t as big of a deal as it turned out to be at the time.

Kentucky now has four shots at six victories or more and feels a stronger sense of urgency with back-to-back road games looming, starting Saturday at Georgia.

“It definitely was a wake-up call,” Kentucky senior linebacker Josh Forrest said. “I planned on having a closer game, a more hard-fought game, but it didn’t turn out that way.”

Despite Stoops’ unhappy tone, his message to the Wildcats was simple in the locker room.

“(He told us not to) get down,” Johnson said. “There are four games left, and if you get down about it, you can go and lose all four, or you can rally up and try to win them.”

Three games into his team’s longest losing streak of the season, Stoops said the solution to ending the skid is simply by winning against a Georgia squad that lost 27-3 to Florida Saturday.

“The only way you make this feeling go away is to go get a victory and go prepare the right way and go in with a tough mentality and go get a win,” he said. “Go get No. 5 and that’s the only thing we have got to concentrate on.”

Notes

* Kentucky running back Stanley “Boom” Williams left the game in the second quarter and didn’t return. Stoops said Williams hurt his elbow, but didn’t know the extent of the injury. Backup running back Mikel Horton filled the void and finished with 109 yards on 14 carries.

* The touchdown by Johnson was the team’s first defensive score of the year and the longest against an SEC team since 2011.

Keith Taylor is a columnist and senior sports writer who covers Kentucky athletics for KyForward.com.


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