The offense came too little, too late for Southern Miss on Saturday.
Kentucky held on for an 24-17 victory before a small crowd of 22,761 at Roberts Stadium, giving the Wildcats a bit of revenge after falling 44-35 to USM in Lexington to open the 2016 campaign.
"It was a tough loss, a hard fought loss," USM head coach Jay Hopson said. "We played pretty well, but we just didn't execute on some things. We had turnovers and problems with (letting receivers get free on defense). On a whole, we played pretty physical football."
USM sophomore Keon Howard received the start at quarterback for the Golden Eagles. While he made only one mistake on a lost fumble in the first half, the offense managed just 129 yards and 3 points with him behind center in the first half.
He was replaced by redshirt junior Kwadra Griggs on the final snap of the first half and he played the rest of the way, putting together a pair of scoring drives.
While the USM offense was fairly conservative with Howard in the game, Griggs flashed some creativity behind center. He scrambled to find receivers down field and even made a submarine toss on a 30-yard completion to Quez Watkins for a first down.
Griggs completed 15-of-26 passes for 222 yards and two touchdowns. Howard was 7-of-14 for 87 yards while running 10 times for 18 yards.
Hopson explained his decision to start Howard.
"(Howard) was healthy the whole summer and was really solid toward the end (of fall camp)," he said. "We decided to go with him. At halftime, we decided to put Kwadra in and let him roll. Both men definitely did some positive things."
Hopson said he wasn't ready to commit to naming a starting quarterback.
USM lost three of its four fumbles in the game and all proved crucial in the outcome.
With 49 seconds remaining in the third quarter, Griggs fumbled when he was hit hard in the backfield by Darius West. Denzil Ware scooped up the ball and ran 20 yards for the touchdown, giving Kentucky a 24-10 lead and what proved to be the decisive score.
Southern Miss answered with a 26-yard touchdown toss from Griggs to Korey Robertson, marking the second time the two former teammates at Greenwood High School connected on a score to cut the Kentucky lead to 24-17 with 12:42 left.
Robertson ran through several tackles on his way to the big game.
"I've never seen a man tackle him one-on-one," Griggs said.
Robertson had seven catches for 111 yards and two touchdowns. Watkins, a redshirt freshman, also had a big game, pulling in four passes for 103 yards.
Griggs took the field determined to get his team back in the game.
"I tried to be positive, stay calm," Griggs. "I told the guys to relax and that we could do this together. I tried to lead the team. I'm not a selfish person. I did what I could for this team."
USM appeared set to get the ball back with a little over 2 minutes remaining when Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson's pass fell incomplete on 3-and-11 at the UK 30. But Kelsey Douglas was called for defensive holding, giving the Wildcats a first down and allowing them to run more time off the clock.
USM got the ball back with 47 seconds remaining, but could get nothing going after being backed up at their own 1.
"We felt like we were ready to make a run in the fourth quarter," Hopson said. "I could see it in their eyes. I wish the game had another 15 minutes, but that's the reality. We played tough football, did a good job. I was pleased with the effort."
The USM defense gave fans reason to be optimistic, repeatedly stuffing the Kentucky ground game in short yardage situations. The Wildcats managed just 78 yards on 35 carries after riding a strong rushing attack to a 7-6 season and a bowl bid last year.
Redshirt freshman linebacker Racheem Boothe was among the standouts on defense with seven tackles while Rod Crayton and Draper Riley helped stuff the ground game up the middle.
"I think we showed we were very physical and can play with anybody," Crayton said. "We've just got to get better week in and week out."
While Kentucky never really got going on offense, tight end C.J. Conrad managed to get wide open on a pair of plays and finished with two catches for 82 yards, including a 23-yard touchdown toss to give Kentucky a 14-3 lead at the half.
True freshman Paul Gainer, a Gautier native, took over at left tackle in the second quarter when starter Drake Dorbeck went down with an injury. Dorbeck stood on the sideline in the second half with his left arm in a sling.
Gainer held his own against an SEC front despite seeing his first action of college football.
"We had some babies out there," Hopson said. "We had (Arvin Fletcher at guard). Paul will get better and better. He's an extremely talented player."