John Clay: It doesn't get much bigger than Kentucky's showdown at Georgia on Saturday
Call it Cat-tober. A historic Kentucky football 20-13 home win over Florida on Oct. 2. A convincing Kentucky football 42-21 spanking of LSU on Oct. 9. So far, Mark Stoops' troops are 2-for-2 in what was projected to be the toughest stretch of the Wildcats' 2021 season. Dare we think they could go 3-for-3?
Call this Saturday's game in Athens a showdown. Who'd have thunk it? Georgia is Georgia, only better. The Bulldogs are 6-0 overall, 4-0 in the SEC and the No. 1 team in the land. Meanwhile, Kentucky is 6-0 for the first time since 1950; 4-0 in the SEC for the first time since 1977. Saturday's scenario: Unbeaten vs. Unbeaten, between the hedges, 3:30 p.m. with CBS' Brad Nessler and Gary Danielson in the broadcast booth.
It doesn't get much bigger. Or better. True, UK's 2018 matchup with Georgia at Kroger Field was for the SEC East title. Kentucky entered that Nov. 3 matchup 7-1 overall, 5-1 in the league. UK was ranked 11th; Georgia sixth. This time, regardless of the outcome, both teams will have more work to do. But this time, the Bulldogs are the best team in the country. And Kentucky, well, did we mention that six games into the season Kentucky is undefeated?
Saturday will feature the SEC's two best defenses. Georgia ranks first in yards allowed per play at 3.60; Kentucky is second at 4.61. Kentucky is 18th nationally in total defense. Georgia is No. 1, allowing a mere 203.5 yards per game. The Dawgs are big, fast and mean. In four conference games, they've allowed all of 23 points. Two of those victories came via shutout. Two weeks ago, Georgia blanked the same Arkansas that scored 51 points at Ole Miss in a one-point loss Saturday.
That isn't to slight this Kentucky defense. Not one bit. Brad White's group set the tone on the first series Saturday. A blitzing UK linebacker DeAndre Square sacked LSU quarterback Max Johnson. The ball popped loose. UK nose guard Josiah Hayes recovered it. Nine plays later, on a fourth-and-goal from the LSU 3-yard line, Mark Stoops turned down three points in search of six. ("We're going to put the foot on the gas," the coach promised early in the week.) Offensive coordinator Liam Coen schemed running back Chris Rodriguez all by his lonesome in the right flat of the end zone. Quarterback Will Levis found him. The fuse was lit.
"I thought our players had a quiet confidence about them all week," Stoops said afterward.
Props to Coen, who proved a quick learner after facing Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham the week before. Kentucky gained just 224 yards on the Gators. It gained 475 Saturday. UK rocked LSU for 330 yards on the ground. Rodriguez carried 16 times for 147 yards. A hard-running Kavosiey Smoke rushed for 104 yards on 12 carries. Levis gained 75 yards his own self, including a 33-yarder in the third quarter in which the 6-foot-3, 232-pounder was not going down — no way, no how — without a fight.
Kentucky's injuries starting to accumulate
It will require that kind of effort and then some in Athens. Unfortunately, injuries are starting to accumulate. Nose guard Marquan McCall and wide receiver Josh Ali both sat out Saturday. Defensive tackle Octavious Oxendine, who had played his way into the starting lineup, suffered a serious leg injury against LSU. Various teammates are banged and bruised. It's football in mid-October.
"We got pretty thin there in the fourth quarter," White said. "It's cliché to say next man up, but that's what it is. One thing I can promise you, we're gonna fly down there, we're gonna take a bus, go to Athens, step off and we're going to play. And we're gonna play hard."
After all, it's a huge football game. A showdown of a football game. A battle of unbeatens. Georgia will be favored and deservedly so. The smart money is on Kirby Smart's Bulldogs. But this Kentucky team won't go down without a fight. No way, no how. That we know.