Kentucky managed just 45 first-half yards on offense against nationally top ranked LSU Saturday as the Tigers beat down the Wildcats 35-7.
It was yet another uninspiring performance for Kentucky (2-3, 0-2) as they were overmatched in their second straight SEC game. While the Kentucky defense did their best to keep themselves in the game, the offense was nowhere to be found until late in the fourth quarter.
For the second straight week, the defense forced a three-and-out on the first possession of the game, but as the Wildcat offense took over, they struggled as they showed their continuing regression on the offensive side of the ball. The defense played well for the majority of the game, but gave up a few costly big plays that put the game out of reach for the Wildcats.
LSU, who boasts a strong running game, found very little success in the first half. Kentucky stuffed the run and allowed only short gains after Florida ran all over them last weekend. The Kentucky coverage was solid as well as they blanketed Tiger receivers all game long forcing quarterback Jarrett Lee to get rid of the ball out of bounds and scrambling in the backfield. However, the pass rushers only got to him once as he was only sacked one time in the game. Lee finished just 8-21 for 169 yards, but two of those completions went for over 35 yards that led to LSU scores.
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While UK’s coverage in the secondary was solid, they failed to make plays on the ball when the ball was around them. Kentucky has been unable to make big plays on defense to turn the ball over this season when given opportunities. Their inability to make plays on the ball was evident on a 37-yard completion to Reuben Randall. Lee threw a deep ball down to the Kentucky five-yard line, and in triple coverage, the LSU receiver still managed to come down with the football as all three defensive backs failed to turn and look for the ball.
Kentucky held strong as they denied LSU penetration into the end zone three straight attempts, but a costly no-call from the referees kept the Tigers fourth down attempt alive. Back from suspension, quarterback Jordan Jefferson came in for his first action of the season. As the Tigers huddled, a player ran into and out of the huddle while LSU walked to the line, a blatant illegal substitution call. As the player ran off, the referee went to grab his flag, but never threw it and LSU got a timeout. The play assured LSU that they would still have the ball at the one-yard line with a chance to punch it in on fourth and goal. They would as Jefferson snuck in to give LSU their first score of the game to go up 7-0.
Louisiana State continued to struggle offensively as Kentucky held the Tigers in check, but LSU’s playmakers took over in the second quarter. Lee found wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. on the left sideline. He dodged one UK defender, then another, and another, and another, and made five Kentucky defenders miss as he ran past them all to the end zone. LSU led 14-0 with 11:14 left in the half up just two scores.
Meanwhile, the Kentucky offense was stagnant. Morgan Newton continued to struggle throwing the ball, and his receivers continued dropping it. Through the first 29 minutes of the game, Newton had not completed a single pass. He found La’Rod King across the middle as UK regained possession with :53 left in the half for a first down. He would complete one more pass to Matt Roark, but for no gain. Newton ended the half 2-11 for 12 yards.
Kentucky made a change at quarterback in the second half, going to Maxwell Smith looking for a spark offensively. They didn’t find it. Smith struggled as well going just 1-5 for 9 yards. While the quarterback play was weak, they have had little help around them. Kentucky has lost all of their playmakers and no one has stepped up to fill those roles to this point in the season. And as the offensive line returned several starters and a lot of experience, what was supposed to be their greatest strength has proven to be a weakness. The offensive line has kept Newton nervous in the pocket and unprotected. The offensive line has been a disappointment, and the disappointed again as Kentucky quarterbacks were sacked five times. While the quarterbacks do need to get rid of the ball quicker, it is often difficult when defenders are in the backfield by the time the quarterback takes their last step of their drop.
One player who continues to impress is Josh Clemmons who had a couple of nice runs on the day. He finished with just 73 yards, but a long of 17. He has been the lone bright spot on the offensive side of the ball this season.
As LSU continued to chip away at an exasperated defense, Kentucky continued to falter offensively. LSU put up 21 more points in the second half and Kentucky did not find any success on offense until their final drive of the game. Newton reentered the game earlier in the half and finally found a rhythm. Kentucky has continued to find their most success in an up-tempo, hurry-up offense, but they have only gone to it when trailing in the game. Kentucky finally got on the board as Newton found Roark in the back corner of the end zone on a nicely thrown ball to cut the lead to 35-7.
Kentucky walks away from the game finding no answers and perhaps more questions in the coming weeks. While their two toughest opponents are in the rear view mirror on the schedule, Kentucky does not have many easy games left on it. With just two wins in the first five, Kentucky is going to greatly need to improve on both sides of the ball and pull off some upsets to get back to another bowl and continue their streak. However, with the way that they’ve played so far this season, there are no automatic wins on the schedule and it is going to be difficult to get any win the rest of the way.