Wildcats Fall Short to Auburn Despite Second-Half Surge

Lexington, Ky. -- Kentucky scored 17 second-half points and rallied to within one score, but the Auburn Tigers held on for a 30-27 win in front of 63,407 fans in The New Commonwealth Stadium on Thursday night. 

"It was great, a really special night," said head coach Mark Stoops regarding the evening's atmosphere.  "The fans were up; I saw them standing. And again, we just were so close, we just could never get that momentum and get on top and that's probably what's going to bother you, is we have had opportunities to get the game tied or get ahead and just couldn't do it. But I really appreciate the atmosphere and the effort.  It was fantastic environment."

Auburn earned a 10-point advantage at 30-20 with less than eight minutes to play before the Wildcats pulled to within three following a Mikel Horton 1-yard plunge. Kentucky was able to get the ball back with 2:12 remaining, but UK failed to convert on fourth-and-3 from the Auburn 44 to allow the Tigers to clinch the victory.

Stoops noted the effort by his team, saying, "I felt like our players played extremely hard. But like I just told them, when you have a bunch of tough games it comes down to making some plays. And give them credit, they made the plays to win the game and we did not."

With the loss, Kentucky falls to 4-2 (2-2 Southeastern Conference), while the Tigers advance to 4-2 (1-2 SEC). The Wildcats will hit the road for their next contest, taking on Mississippi State in an SEC tilt on Oct. 24. Kickoff is slated for 7:30 p.m. ET on the SEC Network in Starkville, Miss.

Patrick Towles posted more than 300 yards of offense for the second consecutive game, racking up 359 yards on 27-of-44 passing with one interception. The junior gunslinger had five 20-plus-yard tosses for the evening, including a pair of throws longer than 35 yards.  

Garrett Johnson was Towles’ primary target for the long ball, as he posted a career-best 160 yards receiving, including a season-long 39-yard catch that started a drive to help the Wildcats chip away at a 10-point deficit in the second quarter.  

Marcus McWilson led the way for the UK defense, tying his career best in total tackles after making 10 stops. Josh Forrest was not far behind with nine tackles, and Jason Hatcher also matched his career mark with seven takedowns.  

For the Tigers, Sean White led the team on 17-of-27 passing for 255 yards, 154 of which went into the hands of Ricardo Louis to lead the team in receiving. On the ground, Peyton Barber rushed for 92 yards and two touchdowns, while Kerryon Johnson added 36 yards and a touchdown for Auburn.

Kentucky’s running backs paced the team in scoring, with Stanley “Boom” Williams returning to action to rush for 113 yards and two touchdowns, including a 60-yard sprint that the sophomore would follow up with the opening touchdown for the Wildcats. Horton also notched a touchdown for the Wildcats, making the most of his five carries in the third quarter to bring UK within three points of the Tigers in the final minutes of the game.  

Auburn took little time in taking an early lead thanks to the combination of White and Louis moving the chains with a pair of 20-plus-yard receptions. Once in the red zone, the Tigers turned to Barber to carry the ball in for a 1-yard rushing touchdown and a 7-0 advantage with just under four minutes into the quarter.

The Wildcats quickly retaliated, covering 75 yards on just six plays. After a 5-yard rush that marked his first time in the lineup since Sept. 26, Williams broke through the Auburn defense and tore away for a 60-yard dash to put the Wildcats at first-and-goal from the 3-yard line. Williams completed the drive with consecutive rushes, with an Austin MacGinnis point after attempt equalizing the score, 7-7, with 8:46 remaining on the clock.

Louis started off another drive for the Tigers with a leaping 41-yard catch that would put Auburn 18 yards from the goal line. With a final carry by Kerryon Johnson, Kentucky found itself down 14-7, and suffered a blow when Towles was intercepted off an attempted red-zone conversion. The Tigers added to their tally after a rushing-reliant offense set Daniel Carlson up for a 38-yard field goal. With 8:59 left in the half, the Wildcats trailed 17-7. 

Kentucky was able to close the gap slightly in the ensuing drive. After a penalty pushed UK back to its own 13-yard line and the Wildcats faced third-and-11, Towles sailed a pass down the middle of the field to Johnson for a season-long 39-yard catch by the wide receiver. Johnson nabbed another huge reception to help UK convert on a third down, pulling down a one-handed 36-yarder. With Kentucky unable to reach the end zone, MacGinnis hit a 28-yard field goal as the Wildcats brought the deficit to seven points.

Auburn closed out the half with a pair of field goals by Carlson, giving the Tigers a 23-10 advantage heading into the locker room.

Kentucky came out energized in the second half, with Towles spreading out the offense through the air as Johnson, Jeff Badet and Dorian Baker combined for 50 receiving yards to set up Williams for a 13-yard rush along the left sideline. Williams shouldered his way through the Auburn line and extended his arm with the ball in hand to complete a 6-yard rush for his second touchdown of the game.  Within just over three minutes’ time, the Wildcats were within six points of the Tigers, 23-17.  

The Wildcats’ defense came up with some impactful plays following the touchdown, forcing Auburn to concede a punt on consecutive drives. Chris Westry broke up a play on a Tiger third down intended for the hot hands of Louis, and the next drive had a Hatcher sack for a loss of 12 yards to push Auburn back to its own 13-yard line and surrender the ball.  

Highlighted by a 13-yard rush by Towles and an 11-yard pass to C.J. Conrad, who pulled two Auburn defenders along with him to give the team a first down, UK was able to lessen the deficit even further by getting within field goal range. MacGinnis added another three points for the Wildcats, bringing the score to 23-20 with 1:03 remaining in the quarter.

Auburn’s offense was stymied once more by a voracious third down UK defense, which caused two incomplete passes intended for Louis as the clock expired for the quarter.  

The fourth quarter saw the Tigers retaliate, aided by a 34-yard lob to Louis to reach the red zone.  Barber added another rushing touchdown with 7:56 remaining in the contest, as the Wildcats fell behind 30-20.  

With plenty of fight left, Kentucky answered back immediately. Towles found Blake Bone for an 11-yard pass and later launched to Badet on the Auburn 2-yard line for a 27-yard catch. Horton scored for the Wildcats on a 1-yard rush, once more bringing the Blue and White within three points of the Tigers, 30-27.  

"I'm proud of this team," commended Stoops. "They worked hard and played hard and there's plenty of things we can do better, and we will. And we're excited to go back to work. I think this team knows that we prepare and play to win each and every week and we'll go back to work on Monday."