Mistakes overcome UK against Georgia Tech, Cats fall in TaxSlayer Bowl

Anthony Crawford

Playing in its first bowl game since the 2010 season, UK Football never finds it footing in the postseason and the Cats fall in the TaxSlayer Bowl to the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in Jacksonville, Fla., ending the season 7-6.

Riding a high off of beating rival Louisville Cardinals to become bowl-eligible, the team never found it’s footing in the postseason and couldn’t overcome some early mistakes made against Georgia Tech in the loss.

“I think we learned a great deal from this experience,” UK head coach Mark Stoops said. “It’s definitely a lot to build on. Our players got a good taste of the post-season, not only with being in the post-season, but being in this bowl game that I have great respect for.”

The matchup between the two run-heavy offenses was surprising held stagnant for much of the first half as only one offensive touchdown was scored between the two teams.

Both teams scored a majority of their points behind the legs of their kickers. The rest of the 20-3 deficit that UK faced heading into the locker room came largely from the mistakes made by the Cats in the first half.

The first, and biggest of the game occurred on UK’s first drive as quarterback Stephen Johnson fumbled the ball as the team approached midfield. The turnover was secured by Georgia Tech and returned on the same play to give the team a quick 7-0 lead.

Then after exchanging field goals, UK had a chance to tie up the game getting into the red zone on a drive. But a decision to go for it on fourth down proved costly as the Cats were halted and left with no points at all. 

“That just takes points off the board for us,” Johnson said. “We kind of lined up in the wrong formation. A few things went wrong on that play. If we get that first down, we get more points on the board.”

Confusion in the final minute of the game led to another Georgia Tech field goal and the game approaching dangerous territory as the Yellow Jackets received the ball to start the half.

UK defense held strong to give the Cats a chance to make it a game in the third quarter as they forced Georgia Tech to punt on its first two drives of the second half, but the offense was never able to get going to help narrow the gap. 

“You have to play keep-up. You have to score,” Stoops said. “Possessions are limited. You got to score points earlier than we did.” 

The Cats racked up only 52 yards in the third quarter, but 50 of those came on the last drive of the quarter that extended into the fourth.

That same drive ended with UK’s first touchdown of the game, as Johnson found Dorian Baker in the endzone on a 20-yard pass to cut the Georgia Tech lead to 23-10. 

UK was forced to lean on Johnson more than many expected they would have to in part thanks to the large deficit the Cats faced and also because of the inability of the run game. He finished the game going 19-for-34 for 175 yards and a touchdown.

Boom Williams and Benny Snell finished with a combined 69 yards rushing on 18 attempts, and the lack of a ground attack really hurt UK when the offense was clicking to start the game.

A lot of credit also has to be given to the Georgia Tech offensive line for disrupting the UK offense. Not only did the group make it hard for UK’s running backs but they were also able to get pressure on Johnson for most of the game forcing him to scramble a lot more than UK would have liked.

Johnson managed the pressure as best he could, and despite being sacked twice he was able to escape and make a plays with his legs. The biggest of those came in the fourth quarter when the junior quarterback rolled out of the pocket and scrambled for 21 yards and the score to cut into the lead. Then a two-point conversation made it an eight-point game and gave UK some hope.

The hope was lost though when the onside-kick return failed miserably and blown coverage allowed Georgia Tech to convert on a key third down. A touchdown later on the drive added some insurance and sealed the game for the Yellow Jackets.

The bowl game loss is a negative ending on what should be considered a great season overall by the fans. The season was largely a success, after overcoming some early losses and a season-ending injury to their starting quarterback to rally towards the team’s first postseason appearance in six years. It also helps that UK was able to beat its instate rival and going .500 in the SEC along the way. The team returns a lot of its core and a bright future is something to expect from Stoops and the rest of UK football.

“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,” Stoops said. “That’s a great group to coach. There’s a lot to build on. I’m very excited about the future.”