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Kentucky Kernel

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Kentucky Kernel

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Kentucky football’s recurring issues surface in loss to Clemson in Gator Bowl

Kentucky quarterback Devin Leary loads up to throw during the Kentucky vs. Missouri football game on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023, at Kroger Field in Lexington, Kentucky. Kentucky lost 33-27. Photo by Isaiah Pinto | Staff

Kentucky football suffered a heartbreaking defeat against Clemson in the 79th annual TaxSlayer Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida, losing 38-35. 

However, it was the same issues that have plagued the Wildcats all year that played a large part in their defeat to close out the 2023 season.

“You can’t have so many negative yardage plays, runs that are not giving them a chance to get going, taking sacks, putting the ball on the ground, penalties,” head coach Mark Stoops said. “A lot of things that are on us as a staff.”

After a calm first half that saw several punts and moderate points scored, the Cats took a 14-10 lead into the locker room. 

Sophomore Barion Brown took the opening kickoff of the second half 100 yards to the house to extend Kentucky’s lead to 21-10 while also giving it all the momentum it could want. 

After the defense forced a punt, the Cats had a chance to possibly put the game away early in the second half, but were unable to succeed because of a recurring problem that has haunted them all season. Penalties. 

Holding and facemask penalties by the offense forced a third and 31 that it was unable to convert, forcing a punt. 

The ensuing Clemson offensive drive extended into the fourth quarter and turned the punt into a touchdown to cut the lead to 21-16 after failing a two-point conversion attempt. 

Kentucky wideout Dane Key races to the end zone during the Kentucky vs. Missouri football game on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023, at Kroger Field in Lexington, Kentucky. Kentucky lost 33-27. Photo by Isaiah Pinto | Staff

The Kentucky offense retook the field looking to extend its lead, but this was unable to happen because of another problem Big Blue Nation knows all too well.

The pocket was collapsing quickly on senior quarterback Devin Leary and as he attempted to climb in the pocket, the ball was knocked out of his grasp and into the hands of a defender for a turnover. 

The strip sack fumble was inexcusable,” Stoops said. “You have to tuck the ball at that point. He had people all around him.”

However, the very next play sophomore Alex Afari Jr. forced pressure on the quarterback. This caused an errant throw towards the end zone that sophomore Jordan Lovett was able to dive under and intercept. 

After the defense got the ball back, the offense was able to get a first down as it looked to regain rhythm. The drive would be cut short as Leary loaded up to throw a pass, the ball was batted into the air and intercepted by the Tigers.  

Unlike the previous turnover, this one would cost the Wildcats as the defense surrendered a field goal that shortened their lead to 21-19. 

The offense now needed to respond, but once again could not follow through.

Brown took the ball from Leary on an end around and took off toward the sideline. After gaining four yards, he tried to cut back towards the field until a defender was able to pop the ball free and force a fumble recovered by Clemson. 

 It only took one play to see the effects of this turnover as the Tigers took a 29-yard rush into the end zone and successfully converted a two-point conversion to take a 27-21 lead. 

Kentucky responded as quickly as it could as the two teams battled it out in the chaotic fourth quarter, but Clemson would ultimately come out triumphant as it took a 38-35 lead with 17 seconds to go in the game. 

Kentucky possessed all three timeouts and needed a field goal to force overtime. This hope was short lived as on the first play of the drive, Leary looked to connect with Brown down field, but the pass sailed over Brown’s head and into a defender’s hands for a game sealing interception.   

This finished a four turnover final quarter for the offense with three occuring in consecutive drives. 

Kentucky wideout Dane Key warms up during the Kentucky vs. Missouri football game on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023, at Kroger Field in Lexington, Kentucky. Kentucky lost 33-27. Photo by Isaiah Pinto | Staff

It’s always frustrating when as a team we can’t get it right, we can’t get stuff going,” sophomore Deone Walker said. “I still love my offense.”

Another issue that has been at the forefront of this season’s shortcomings is questionable coaching decisions. 

The defense had been getting to the quarterback all game as Kentucky had sacked the quarterback eight times and forced multiple intentional grounding penalties due to intense pressure. 

After taking a 35-30 lead with 2:39 remaining, one would think that you would go with what has worked all game. Unfortunately, this was not the case. 

After having four straight drives that began in UK territory, The Tigers began this drive on its own 32-yard line. 

The first chance the defense had to get off the field was a 3rd and 10 on Clemson’s 46-yard line.  

Kentucky lined up pre snap in a soft coverage that saw a defender lined up around five yards away from the wide receiver. 

This allowed him to come across the field wide open, and after breaking a few tackles, he was able to secure the first down on the UK 42-yard line. 

Later in the drive, the defense was able to get some pressure and force an intentional grounding penalty that forced a 3rd and 18. 

However, another soft coverage allowed a connection for 16 yards to make it fourth and two with the game on the line. 

This allowed for a handoff on fourth and short that resulted in a conversion to keep the drive and their chance to win the game alive. 

“We get the pressure, we get the intentional grounding,” Stoops said. “The next play really hurt us. It gave them an opportunity to get it to fourth and manageable there. Obviously that’s a play that will haunt us for a while.”

Kentucky opted to stay in softer coverages that allowed pass connections for 11 and 15 yards to set up first and goal on the UK three yard line. This opened the door for a  three yard run for a touchdown that would ultimately decide the game. 

“We could play better. We could call defense better. We will second-guess ourselves on that one,” Stoops said. 

The Wildcats off-season began with the loss, and it will give them the opportunity to address some of these season-long issues that ultimately led to an underwhelming 2023 campaign.

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