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Cats Find Stride Early, Can’t Hold on in Loss to Golden Eagles

NCAA Football: Southern Mississippi at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

For an offense facing many questions going into the 2016 season, the season opener for the Kentucky Wildcats was a tale of two halves. Though the first half looked as dominant as ever with Kentucky quarterback Drew Barker under center, the Cats were held without a point in the second half and lost their season opener 44-35 to the visiting Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles.

Taking the lead first were the Golden Eagles, as they scored a touchdown on their first possession of the night. After giving up the touchdown, however, Kentucky’s defensive unit allowed -4 yards for the rest of the first quarter.

Barker and co. then saw the opportunity to take the lead and never held back.

Southern Mississippi totaled -10 yards on their following possession, forcing them to punt to the Cats. On just the second play of the following Wildcat drive, Barker connected with wide receiver Jeff Badet for a 72-yard touchdown and tied the game at 7-7. After the Cats defense forced a second-consecutive punt, it was a matter of two plays before they scored their second touchdown of the game, just two minutes after the first. This time it was veteran wideout Garrett Johnson who pulled in the 43-yard TD.

The Kentucky defense rode their momentum for the rest of the quarter, forcing a Golden Eagle interception after the Johnson score. With great field position, the Wildcats ran seven plays for sixty-five yards to find the end zone and take a 21-7 lead.

Though the Kentucky offense slowed down in the second quarter, their defense forced a punt and two interceptions for the first three Golden Eagle drives. Following the second pick, Barker dropped a 53-yard bomb downfield to Johnson for his second score of the game. As both teams picked up offensive momentum, the Golden Eagles managed to score a field goal and touchdown, while the Cats added another TD themselves to round out the first half of play.

Following an exciting first half of football, the game took a worst-case-scenario turn of events for the Cats.

The Kentucky defense gave up twenty-one points in the third quarter and six in the fourth, while their offense went scoreless for the entire second half. The turnaround allowed Southern Mississippi to win the game by nine, leaving Wildcat fans stunned.

Barker finished the game 15/24 for 323 yards and four TD’s with one interception. Stanley "Boom" Williams rushed thirteen times for 94 yards. Fan favorite JoJo Kemp tallied the lone rushing touchdown for the Wildcat backfield. Veteran Garrett Johnson lead the receiving corps, hauling in six catches for 143 yards and two TD’s.

On defense, J.D. Harmon shined with two INT’s. Sophomore linebacker Jordan Jones also mustered 19 total tackles, with 13 of them being solo.

There were some positives to find in the loss, however, as the first half displayed great chemistry on both sides of the ball. With a new quarterback under center, the team is just becoming familiar and assumed to perform better by the week.

The Wildcats will travel to Gainesville, Florida this upcoming Saturday to battle the SEC rival Florida Gators. Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m. EDT