Defense holds up, but No. 1 Georgia hands Kentucky football another loss: 3 takeaways

Brooks Holton
Louisville Courier Journal

LEXINGTON, Ky. — The first three drives of the second half told the story of Kentucky football's 13th consecutive loss to Georgia

Drive 1: With his team trailing 9-0 out of the break, UK redshirt freshman Jordan Lovett intercepted an errant pass from UGA quarterback Stetson Bennett IV at the Wildcats' 11-yard line. 

Drive 2: Kentucky netted negative-6 yards in four plays and punted in the shadow of its goal post. 

Drive 3: The No. 1 team in the country marched 58 yards in eight plays — 54 of those yards coming on the ground — to punch in the first touchdown of the evening and take a 16-0 lead. 

Game. Set. Match. 

Nov 19, 2022; Lexington, Kentucky, USA; Kentucky Wildcats quarterback Will Levis (7) runs the ball during the second quarter against the Georgia Bulldogs at Kroger Field. Mandatory Credit: Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports

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To be sure, Kentucky bounced back from one of the worst losses of the Mark Stoops Era last week by showing improvement against the reigning national champions Saturday night at Kroger Field. But UK’s offensive miscues continued to mount up, and the Bulldogs eventually wore the Wildcats' defense down. 

The final score: Georgia 16, Kentucky 6. 

UK fell to 6-5 (3-5 Southeastern Conference) with the loss, while UGA improved to 11-0 (8-0) with the victory.

Kentucky’s defense played winning football

Kentucky defensive back Keidron Smith (1) and linebacker Jordan Wright, right, bring down Georgia wide receiver Ladd McConkey (84) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Lexington, Ky., Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Michael Clubb)

Defensive coordinator Brad White's unit accomplished a rare feat Saturday: hold Georgia's offense to less than 10 points in the first half. Only one other team, Missouri, can say it has done the same this season.

Kentucky bent but didn’t break when UGA reached the red zone on each of its three first-half drives. On back-to-back plays in the first quarter, the Wildcats' secondary blanketed the Bulldogs' receivers, forcing Bennett out of the pocket, and the UK front seven did a good job not breaking contain. 

Lovett's interception at the start of the second half opened a window of opportunity for Kentucky's offense to make it a one-possession game if the unit had been able to put points on the board. To start the fourth quarter, the defense turned Georgia over on downs with a goal-line stand, which led to a 99-yard drive capped off by UK's only touchdown of the contest. 

UGA, which entered Saturday tied for sixth in the country with 40.6 points per game, scored less than 20 points for the first time all season. The Bulldogs did, however, average 5.4 yards per carry while out-rushing Kentucky 247-89.

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The Wildcats' offense continues to squander red-zone opportunities

Kentucky quarterback Will Levis (7) looks on during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Georgia in Lexington, Ky., Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Michael Clubb)

Kentucky moved the ball inside Georgia’s 40-yard line on its first two drives of the game but couldn’t put points on the board. 

On the first drive, the unit failed to get 1 yard on back-to-back runs out of the shotgun called by offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello. On the second drive, Levis exited the game briefly after getting banged up on a first-down run … then had a pass picked off at the UGA 2-yard line on his first play back. 

The Wildcats were able to move the ball against the Bulldogs, who entered Saturday ranked second in the country with 11.6 points allowed per game, but the margin for error against such an opponent is razor thin.

Freshman wideout Barion Brown shined the brightest with 10 receptions for 145 yards and UK’s lone touchdown. Senior tailback Chris Rodriguez, however, was held in check, posting just 51 yards on 17 carries. 

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What’s next? Make-or-break battle for the Governor’s Cup 

Nov 19, 2022; Lexington, Kentucky, USA; Kentucky Wildcats head coach Mark Stoops looks on during the first quarter against the Georgia Bulldogs at Kroger Field. Mandatory Credit: Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports

It certainly didn’t appear to be headed this way at the beginning of the season, but Kentucky’s annual rivalry game against Louisville is going to be a toss up. 

The Wildcats have outscored the Cardinals 153-44 the past three years en route to a three-game winning streak, but Scangarello’s unit hasn’t scored more than 21 points in a game since a 27-17 win over Mississippi State on Oct. 15.

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Scott Satterfield’s team, meanwhile, entered Saturday ranked 12th in the country in tackles for loss and 26th in scoring defense. U of L improved to 7-4 on the season with a 25-10 victory against NC State.

For a team that started the season with aspirations of reaching the SEC Championship, Stoops and company are going to need a convincing win against their archrival to improve their bowl projections, to end the season on the highest note possible and to avoid slipping further behind the Cardinals on the recruiting trail. U of L's 2023 class currently ranks 17th on 247Sports' national leaderboard, while Kentucky ranks 48th.

Reach recruiting and trending sports reporter Brooks Holton at bholton@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter at @brooksHolton.