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Kentucky-Georgia a matchup of resilient teams

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Kentucky will play at Georgia at 7 p.m. ET on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Kentucky will play at Georgia at 7 p.m. ET on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
A longtime defensive backs coach, Mark Stoops watched the way Georgia lost against Auburn and winced.

With the Tigers facing a one-point deficit and a fourth-and-18, quarterback Nick Marshall tossed a desperation heave over the middle of the field. Two Bulldog defenders converged and Josh Harvey-Clemons got a hand on the pass, but it deflected ahead to Ricardo Louis' for a game-winning 73-yard touchdown pass with 25 seconds left.

Stoops knows how the Bulldog staff coached its players to defend that situation, but also that predicting how anyone will react in the heat of the moment is impossible.

"Sometimes players' instincts take over," Stoops said. "They had two guys that are trying to make a play, with great effort, and it's unfortunate for them. But I know they talk about it and we talk about you have to knock it down right there."

The loss was the latest in the latest of a string of misfortunes for Georgia (6-4, 4-3 Southeastern Conference). The Bulldogs opened the season ranked No. 5 but lost at Clemson in week one before climbing back to No. 7 in early October.

It was then that injuries -- particularly at wide receiver and running back -- befell the Bulldogs, who have lost three of five games in spite of holding fourth-quarter leads in each defeat. Never, however, has Georgia packed it in, not even down 20 in the fourth quarter on the road against a top-10 Auburn team.

The same will surely be true when Kentucky (2-8, 0-6 SEC) travels to Athens, Ga., for a game on Saturday at 7 p.m. ET.

"That's what I was so impressed with," Stoops said. "You know, kind of a fluke play to lose it, but to see them battle back, we had a chance to watch it on the way back (from UK's game in Nashville on Saturday). It was on the bus, we had satellite and were actually watching that game and just watching it live and then watching it on film."

That never-say-day attitude, in Stoops' opinion, begins with Georgia's quarterback and senior leader. Aaron Murray's name is all over the SEC's passing record books, as he now occupies the top spot in touchdown passes, total offense, passing yards and completions.

"He just knows where to go with the ball at all times and is a great leader and on top of that, he's got a very strong arm and a very accurate passer," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "I'd say the biggest thing about him is he's just so intelligent with how to handle the game."

Murray's leadership through adversity is what most impresses Stoops.

He has managed to throw for 2,892 yards and 22 touchdowns in 2013 with many of his top weapons sidelined, including 415 yards against Auburn. Nine Bulldogs have at least 10 receptions on the season, including leading receiver Chris Conley (32 catches for 442 yards), who returned against Auburn after missing two games with a sprained ankle.

Also back in the lineup is sophomore running back Todd Gurley, who has 704 rushing yards and seven touchdowns in just seven games played and two starts. His presence is a game changer.

"(Defending a balanced offense) is always hard, so you've got to make sure that your defense is made where you're making the right call at the right time, you know," Eliot said. "If I want to stop the run, I've got to have a run called. If I want to stop the pass, I've got to have a pass called. That makes it very difficult."

Particularly in the passing game, UK's challenge against Georgia will be much different than the one it faced at Vanderbilt. The Commodores relied heavily on Jordan Matthews -- who caught 12 passes for 141 yards -- but Murray figures to spread the wealth.

The Wildcat secondary is still in search of its first interception of the season -- a statistic that both befuddles and maddens Stoops -- and now UK will look to get it against one of the best quarterbacks the SEC has seen.

"It's right there sometimes and just hasn't gone our way it seems like," Eliot said. "But it will. It will. We keep putting them in position, those kids keep fighting hard, we'll start making our side of the plays."

Georgia has made more than its share of plays on defense, particularly behind a stout defensive line. The Bulldogs are second in the SEC in sacks with 28 and have hurried the opposing quarterback an incredible 93 times. For the sake of comparison, Georgia has given up just 12 sacks and 18 quarterback hurries.

"It's going to be tough," offensive guard Kevin Mitchell said. "Fortunately we're not too banged up. Hopefully we're all going to be playing. Every week we go against good D-lines."

Mitchell has contended with a variety of maladies this season, ranging from a bruised knee to regular stingers to an ankle injury to balky AC joints, but has refused to let any of them affect his senior season for too long.

That kind of mentality has become more and more common as Stoops' first season in Lexington has worn on. The losses may be tough to take, but the Cats -- much like their opponent this weekend -- have refused to wilt.

"I think you're starting to see more accountability on this team as guys understand us and start understanding that whether it's off the field or little things, it all matters," Stoops said. "And I think we're starting to get some leadership."

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