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No. 8 Auburn capitalizes on late UK miscues, pulls out 29-13 victory over Wildcats in season opener

By Keith Taylor
Kentucky Today

AUBURN, Ala. — It was an opener unlike any other. Facemasks, social distancing and a half-empty stadium.

Kentucky officially kicked off its 130th football season on Saturday against a Southeastern Conference opponent for the first time since 1960, when former league member Georgia Tech defeated the Wildcats 23-13.

Because of the ongoing pandemic, the season was postponed and resulted in a conference-only schedule that will provide a weekly test for every SEC team — especially Kentucky. That schedule began Saturday with UK on the road against powerful Auburn.

UK running back Kavosiey Smoke (20) speeds past Auburn defenders for a touchdown in the first quarter. (UK photo)

The 23rd-ranked Wildcats gave No. 8 Auburn all it could handle before the Tigers scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter for a 29-13 victory at Jordan-Hare Stadium in front of a crowd of 17,490 fans scattered on both sides of the stadium for social distancing. Usually, the stadium packs in 87,451 fans on a typical fall game day.

Not this year.

Normally by this time of the year, UK would have played at least three games already, providing a glimpse of what to expect, following a couple of non-conference contests, mixed in with a league foe somewhere in between. Every team is in the same boat. No cupcakes before the real meal and it will be SEC games all year long.

If there were any first-game jitters, it certainly didn’t show on Kentucky’s opening drive. The series began at the Auburn 7-yard line and resulted in a 35-yard touchdown run by Kavosiey Smoke 11 plays later. That opening drive showcased Kentucky’s ability to dominate on the offensive line.

Auburn responded with a touchdown and a two-point conversion after Kentucky’s first strike that gave the hosts an 8-7 lead, a margin that stood for the remainder of the first half.

Kentucky received a rare break — on the road — when a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown was called back at the end of the opening half. A targeting call on that play nullified the Auburn touchdown and provided a way of escape for the Wildcats, but that couldn’t prevent a collapse in the second half.

Moments earlier, Chis Rodriguez was denied a touchdown at the goal line, forcing the Wildcats to go for it on fourth down. Numerous replays showed Rodriguez had crossed the goal line, but the call stood after a review by the officials.

It was that non-touchdown call that haunted the Wildcats for the remainder of the contest.

UK quarterback Terry Wilson passed for 239 yards and a touchdown against Auburn. (UK photo)

As with most openers, there were mistakes, including a costly fumble by quarterback Terry Wilson in the fourth quarter that created an adequate scoring margin for Auburn. The Tigers converted the miscue into a touchdown and then added another score after a botched punt attempt on the ensuing series to put the game away.

Those two touchdowns and a two-point conversion proved to be the difference between the two teams in the long-waited opener for both programs.

“We did some really good things in this game and then did some things we have to improve on,” UK head coach Mark Stoops said. “We made too many mistakes to beat a quality opponent like Auburn on the road. There are things that all of us need to do better, but there’s an awful lot of good things – a lot of things to build on.”

Although the outcome wasn’t a victory for the Wildcats, the fact the season even kicked off was in itself was a win-win for both teams.

Wilson, who missed most of last season with a knee injury, passed for 239 yards and a touchdown. He finished 24 of 37 through the air, connecting with Josh Ali nine times for 98 yards. Smoke led the Wildcat ground attack with 62 yards rushing and a touchdown.

Kentucky returns to action next Saturday, hosting Ole Miss in the home opener at Kroger Field. Kickoff is set for 4 p.m.

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com.

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