By KEITH TAYLOR
AUBURN, Ala. — It was an opener unlike any other. Facemasks, social distancing, and a half-empty stadium.
Kentucky officially kicked off its 130th season on Saturday against a Southeastern Conference opponent for the first time since 1960 when former league member Georgia Tech defeated the Wildcats 23-13.
Because of the ongoing pandemic, the season was postponed, thus resulting in a conference-only schedule that will provide a weekly test for every team, especially Kentucky and it began in the road against the Tigers.
The 23rd-ranked Wildcats gave No. 8 Auburn all they could handle before the Tigers scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter for a 29-13 victory here at Jordan-Hare Stadium in front of a crowd of 17,490 social-distance fans scattered on both sides of the stadium. Usually, the stadium packs in 87,451 fans on a typical fall Game Day.
Not this year.
Normally by this time of the year, the Wildcats would have played at least three games already, providing a glimpse of what to expect, following a couple of non-conference contests, mixed in with a league foe somewhere in between. Every team is in the same boat. No cupcakes before the real meal and it will be SEC games all year long.
If there were any first-game jitters, it certainly didn’t show on Kentucky’s opening drive. The series that began at the Auburn 7-yard line and resulted in a 35-yard touchdown run by Kavosiey Smoke 11 plays later that showcased Kentucky’s ability to dominate on the offensive line.
The Tigers struck back with a touchdown and a two-point conversion after Kentucky’s first strike that gave the hosts an 8-7 lead, a margin that stood for the remainder of the first half.
Kentucky received a rare break — on the road — when a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown was called back at the end of the opening half. A targeting call on the potential pick-six provided a way of escape for the Wildcats, but that couldn’t prevent a collapsed in the second half.
Moments earlier, Chis Rodriguez was denied a touchdown at the goal line, forcing the Wildcats to go for it on fourth down. Numerous replays showed Rodriguez had crossed the goal line, but the call stood after a review by the officials.
It was that non-touchdown call that haunted the Wildcats for the remainder of the contest.
As with most openers, there were mistakes, including a costly mistake by quarterback Terry Wilson in the fourth quarter that created an adequate scoring margin for Auburn down the stretch. The Tigers converted the miscue into a touchdown and then added another score after a botched punt attempt on the ensuing series to put the game away.
Those two touchdowns and a two-point conversion proved to be the difference between the two teams in the long-waited opener for both programs.
Although the outcome wasn’t a victory for the Wildcats, the fact the season even kicked off was in itself was a win-win for both teams.