Rapid Reaction: Listless Kentucky just good enough to beat Chattanooga
Kentucky was a heavy favorite at home against FCS program Chattanooga on Saturday, but needed a productive fourth quarter to dispatch the Mocs, 28-23, in a near total systems failure.
The vaunted Wildcats ground attack was outgained throughout the game by the underdog Chattanooga squad, and a trio of early turnovers nearly doomed the Wildcats. But UK quarterback Will Levis swooped to a fourth quarter rescue, supported by safety Tyrell Ajian.
With 10:18 to play, Levis found tight end Izayah Cummings on a 31-yard strike that allowed UK to regain a 21-16 lead en route to a surprisingly difficult victory. Kentucky had not trailed until earlier in the quarter, when Chattanooga made its third successive field goal to gain a 16-14 advantage over a mistake-prone Wildcats team.
Once the Mocs drove into UK territory again, Ajian answered the bell, intercepting a flat throw from QB Cole Copeland at his own 5-yard line and returning it 95 yards for a victory-sealing touchdown with 7:40 to play. The Wildcats suddenly made things look comfortable late, but that wasn’t the nature of Saturday’s victory.
Kentucky took the opening kickoff and marched down the field on a 70-yard scoring drive, culminating in an 11 yard rushing touchdown by senior wide receiver Josh Ali. The extra point made it 7-0 with 10:43 left in the opening quarter and gave Kentucky an opening to dominate the game. But Chattanooga hung around and then some.
The Mocs took their opening possession for a 6-play scoring drive that ended in Copeland hitting a receiver screen for a 12 yard touchdown pass to Reginald Henderson. The key play on the drive was a 48-yard rush by back Ailyn Ford, who easily cracked 100 rushing yards on a day when the SEC’s leading rusher, Chris Rodriguez, did not. It was 7-7 with 6:56 to play, and an uneasy restlessness settled over Kroger Field for the duration of the game.
After an exchange of punts, UK grabbed momentum in the first moments of the second quarter when Levis hit Wan’Dale Robinson for a 39-yard gain, and later found senior WR Isaiah Epps for a 20-yard scoring connection. The extra point stretched UK’s lead to 14-7 with 13:29 to play in the half. It would be the last points UK scored for more than two quarters.
Kentucky had stopped Chattanooga and regained possession, but Levis then threw an interception to Mocs DB CaMiron Smith, which he returned to the Kentucky 15-yard line. A 27-yard Aaron Sears field goal cut the UK lead to 14-10. That score held into halftime, despite a 236-101 Kentucky yardage advantage in the first half.
In the third quarter, Chattanooga took its opening possession into UK territory before settling for a 43-yard Sears field goal that cut the lead to 14-13. After another Levis interception, Chattanooga gained the lead on the opening possession of the 4th quarter via a 30-yard Sears field goal. The 16-14 Mocs advantage with 13:27 to play stunned the Kroger Field crowd to near silence, before Levis rallied the Wildcats and Ajian sealed the deal.
Chattanooga got within 28-23 on a 14-play, 75-yard drive capped when Copeland ran in for a touchdown with 1:20 left. UK’s Ali recovered the ensuing onside kick and the Wildcats ran out the clock.
Kentucky will next go on the road for the first time this season, playing at South Carolina next Saturday night. Chattanooga falls to 1-2, but will likely continue to be ranked in the FCS Top 25.