A year full of high expectations for the Cats started off on the wrong foot, as three turnovers and a leaky pass defense doomed them in their 29-13 loss to Auburn in their first action of the year.
Bo Nix tossed for 233 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Tigers to the win, demonstrating vast improvement against what is supposed to be one of the top secondaries in the nation. He was buoyed in large part by a dominant showing from Seth Williams, who recorded six receptions for 112 yards and hauled in Nix’s first two passing scores.
“They have a wideout that’s an absolute monster,” Stoops said regarding the junior wideout. “It’s hard in certain situations to double him… he’s a tough matchup on anybody in the league [and] made two incredible catches.”
“He’s a bigger receiver, he’s a physical receiver. He has great hands,” linebacker DeAndre Square said. “We knew he was gonna be a problem coming in. We just tried our best to contain him.”
The Cats could not have asked for a better opening drive offensively, going 93 yards on eleven plays after getting pinned deep in their own territory. Terry Wilson completed each of his five pass attempts, including four to Josh Ali before Kavosiey Smoke burst down the right side of the field and into the end zone for the first score of the SEC season.
Ali continued to have an impact throughout the game, totaling 98 yards on nine catches. Those numbers more than doubled the next closest players in both receptions (4; Asim Rose, Demarcus Harris) and yards (42; Allen Dailey), fueling his preseason breakout hype through week one.
While the score doesn’t show it, the Cats had their opportunities. Each of the three drives that followed the opening one ended in Auburn territory, including the final one, which ended amid major controversy.
After picking up a third and one from the Tiger three-yard line, Chris Rodriguez got the ball once again and appeared to push his way into the end zone for a touchdown. The officials questionably ruled him down inside the one before reviewing the play, which ultimately stood as called.
Two plays later, Wilson threw what would have been a 100-yard pick-six if not for another questionable review that determined an Auburn player had committed targeting on the return.
The sequence left players and fans from both sides angry, with the Auburn students raining boos as the teams went into the locker room for halftime.
Neither team sounded pleased with the officiating in the moment, including Stoops.
“He was clearly in,” he said. “I really can’t get a good explanation… I didn’t really get good explanations all day.”
The Wildcat head coach was not alone in his sentiment.
“We definitely thought he was in,” Terry Wilson said. “I thought it was gonna be a touchdown after they watched it again, but, you know, it wasn’t.”
Kentucky also missed chances in the game’s later stages. Down just two, Wilson fumbled on a third down to set the Tigers up at the UK 23. After giving up a touchdown and going three-and-out, a failed fake punt gave Auburn possession deep in Wildcat territory again, this time on the 27-yard line. And the Tigers capitalized once more, as Nix hit Eli Stove for a 21-yard touchdown that essentially iced the game.
“The defense getting three turnovers was huge,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “[After] the fake punt… we scored a play or two after to put the game away.”
“We made too many mistakes to beat a quality opponent like Auburn on the road,” Stoops said.
The Cats will try to pick up their first win of the season next Saturday against Ole Miss in their home opener. Kickoff is set for 3:00 p.m. ET on SEC Network.