For the second straight year, Kentucky won't be going to a bowl game. The Wildcats are now assured of their third straight losing season.
The season isn't over for the Wildcats (1-7, 0-5 Southeastern Conference), but there is a stark reality facing them after a 29-24 loss to No. 13 Georgia (6-1, 4-1 SEC) at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday night.
"I don't really live in 'almosts.' At the end of the year, you don't say you almost won," head coach Joker Phillips said. "The record will say wins and losses. We come out here to try to win. We don't come out here to almost try and win."
Georgia ran down the clock in the final minutes to seal its win while the clock on Kentucky's season loomed large. With four games left, there will be no postseason for the Wildcats to play for.
"We still have a lot to play for," senior center Matt Smith said. "We're getting a lot of these younger guys reps for their future. It's tough being a senior knowing that I'm not going to make it to a bowl now in my final season, but there's still a lot to play for."
It looked like Kentucky would have a chance to re-take the lead when Georgia was forced to punt from its own 19 early in the fourth quarter after a three-and-out. But defensive end Mike Douglas was flagged for running into the kicker, giving the Bulldogs a first down and much-needed momentum.
Georgia drove 75 yards for a touchdown after that, taking a 29-17 lead before giving the ball back. Kentucky responded to pull within one possession with 3:44 to go, but couldn't recover an onsides kick to give themselves a final chance.
Georgia's rushing tandem of Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley found roadblock after roadblock in the Kentucky defense, finishing the night with 70 combined yards rushing.
Quarterback Aaron Murray found no such obstacles, completing 30-38 passes for a career-high 427 yards and four touchdowns on the night. His 78.9 percent completion rate was a school record, and he passed for the most yards by a Georgia quarterback since 1994. Georgia wide receiver Tavarres King had a career-high nine catches for 188 yards and two touchdowns.
Kentucky's already-depleted secondary lost senior cornerback Cartier Rice when he re-aggravated a hip flexor he's been battling all season in the first half. He didn't return, leaving the Wildcats with three true corners to try and contain the Bulldogs aerial assault.
"You'd rather be here talking about kids who played years," defensive coordinator Rick Minter said. "We're talking about guys who have played days and now weeks and now two games.
Freshman quarterback Jalen Whitlow and the UK offense showed signs of life after nearly being shut out a week ago. Whitlow alternated with senior Morgan Newton, and UK didn't have a single turnover. The offense generated 206 yards on the ground, and Whitlow was able to eliminate some of the poor decisions that had plagued him in recent weeks.
Kentucky even scored a touchdown in the first quarter, the first time that had happened in 20 games. Newton found senior receiver Aaron Boyd for a four-yard score after Whitlow had driven the offense down the field.
"It was nice to look out there and not get any uh-ohs, any of those plays like 'what in the world was that?'" offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said. "For the most part, we got lined up in the right places, we didn't forget any motions or send the wrong guy in motion, do anything like that. It looked like he had his eyes in the right place in the passing game."
There were positives, but little solace for Phillips. Kentucky will have to face its third straight opponent coming off a bye next week. They'll have to find ways to build off another loss.
They'll do it with no chance of a bowl game, or a winning season.
"No one can say this team has quit," Phillips said. "We have a young team that comes to practice, excited to play, excited to practice, and that's the type of effort you saw tonight with these guys. We've got to continue to get better."
Freshman quarterback Jalen Whitlow was suffering migraines at halftime that distorted his vision. He returned midway through the fourth quarter.
"I've just been getting them since I was a little boy," he said. "I don't know how I got it. I just got one. Around halftime. Just fight it off, just took some medicine. Just sat down and tried to fight it off, just relax for a minute, and got back out there and tried to play, tried to help my team win."
Redshirt freshman offensive lineman Zach West re-aggravated a shoulder sprain in the first quarter, but returned to the game before halftime.
Senior cornerback Cartier Rice re-aggravated a hip flexor he sustained last week against Arkansas. He did not return to the game. His status will be evaluated going forward.