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Big Blueprint: Loss at Vanderbilt deals blow to bowl eligibility hopes

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Missed the game? Watched it but can't get enough or can't believe what you saw? Cat Scratches will break down the nuts and bolts from each and every game, including some postgame reaction and comments from the players who made the difference.

The essentials:
With a chance to close within one win of bowl eligibility, the Kentucky Wildcats fell 38-8 at the hands of the host Vanderbilt Commodores in front of 33,718 fans at Vanderbilt Stadium. Behind 135 yards rushing and three touchdowns from running back Zac Stacy, Vanderbilt sprinted out to an early lead and the Wildcats weren't able to recover.

The disappointment in the voice of head coach Joker Phillips was perfectly clear in his postgame comments. In trying to evaluate how it happened, Phillips couldn't find a single player or coach on the roster who could be completely absolved.

"We all created what you just saw out there: coaches, players, everyone of us," Phillips said.

Stacy, who entered this game having averaged 6.9 yards per attempt on just 12.2 carries per game, transformed into a workhorse against the Wildcats. Oftentimes running the same play repeatedly with Stacy, Vanderbilt was able to move the ball on ground and push the pile forward. Not helping the cause were the absences of Donte Rumph and Ridge Wilson along UK's defensive front.

"They ran power, which is an attitude play, that we could not stop and get ourselves off the field," Phillips said.

Meanwhile, UK managed just 22 carries for 32 yards as a team. Removing the 31 yards lost on sacks of Maxwell Smith, the Wildcats were not quite as bad as the statistics show, but there's no hiding the fact that Kentucky lost the battle up front.

"It's a physical battle, that's obvious," Phillips said. "When a team runs the ball for that many yards and you're only able to run the ball for 35 yards, that's winning the physical battle."

Stacy's effectiveness on the ground made for opportunities on the outside for quarterback Jordan Rodgers. The junior completed 12-of-22 passes for 207 yards, heavily favoring his top target: wide receiver Jordan Matthews. Matthews caught six passes for 131 yards and a touchdown.

Turning point: The Kentucky defense made a nice stand on the game's opening drive after Vanderbilt drove to the UK 26-yard line. With the benefit of a personal foul and Eric Dixon's first career sack, UK forced a punt and the Wildcats took over at their own eight-yard line. UK picked up a first down to get out of the shadow of its own goal post, but had to punt from the 24-yard line with the hope Ryan Tydlacka would be able to flip the field as he has done so many times this season.

Instead, the long snap to Tydlacka came in a little low and careened away from the senior punter. He was able to pick the ball up, but was tackled at his own three-yard line. Vanderbilt took advantage of the ideal field position, handing the ball to Stacy for a touchdown and an early 7-0 lead they would never relinquish.

Play of the game:
UK made another stop in its own territory on Vanderbilt' subsequent drive with an interception at the goal line from Randall Burden and looked poised to force the Commodores into a field goal on their first drive on the second quarter. A penalty put Vandy into a third-and-13 situation from the UK 14, but wide receiver Chris Boyd was able to beat Burden inside. Rodgers found him at the goal line for a touchdown, beginning a string of Commodore conversions on long third downs.

"When you get a team in third-and-long, you have to get off the field," Minter said. "You have to analyze what happens on those because everything that happens after third-and-long is like an unearned run in baseball. You ought to be off the field, but you're not. You're still playing."

In many ways, third down conversions were the story more than anything else on this day. Vanderbilt managed to convert on 10-of-18 opportunities while UK was 0-for-12.

Unsung heroes:
Identifying bright spots in a blowout loss is never easy, but the performance of tight end Nick Melillo should not be completely overlooked. UK has searched for a tight end to step up as a major pass-catching threat all season and Melillo has shown the most potential of any player on the roster to do that in recent games. That culminated against Vanderbilt with a four-catch, 59-yard performance that included UK's only touchdown, the first of Melillo's career.

Injury report: On Vanderbilt's final drive, both Winston Guy (left shoulder AC sprain) and Martavius Neloms (right ankle) went down with injuries. Both will be evaluated when they return to Lexington. Right tackle Chandler Burden has an injury to his right thumb that is being called a sprain. He will get x-rays to confirm the diagnosis on Sunday.

Hidden stat: On the occasions when UK executed, the Wildcats often did themselves in with mental errors. Coming in to Saturday's game, Kentucky was third in the nation in fewest penalty yards (32.44 per game), but UK was flagged 10 times for 105 yards in the loss.

"We were one of the top teams in the country in penalties and we had penalty after penalty after penalty in crucial situations," Phillips said.

Four of the Wildcats' penalties directly resulted in Commodore first downs.

"It's always disappointing when you self-inflict," Minter said. "It's one thing to get beat, it's another when you help them. It's not good. It's not a good sign that we do those things. Kids are kids and you give the opponent credit, but there's no excuse for us doing things that are foolish or silly."

What this one means: The battle for bowl eligibility the Wildcats are waging just became that much more uphill. With a road game against Georgia and a home outing against Tennessee left on the schedule, UK will need to upend two tough conference opponents to extend its streak of bowl appearances to six.

"It just got tougher for us, we understand that," Phillips said. "There are still some things out there for us to play for."

The bus ride home will be a long one, but the Wildcats have no choice but to get back to work this week with a trip to Athens, Ga., upcoming.

"This is athletics, you've got to," Phillips said. "You've got to get yourselves up emotionally because this is an emotional game."

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