The Wildcats watched helplessly as the visiting Golden Eagles erased a huge first-half deficit by scoring 34 unanswered points en route to a 44-35 victory at Commonwealth Stadium.
Southern Miss (1-0) racked up 520 yards of total offense, powered by Nick Mullens' 258 yards passing, Ito Smith's 173 yards rushing and a gameplan devised by last year's Wildcat offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson, who was fired by Stoops after only one year on the job.
A tale of two halves saw Kentucky (0-1) race to a 35-10 lead late in the second quarter on the strength of four Drew Barker touchdown passes and three interceptions by the defense. But the second half was an unmitigated disaster with the Cats running only 14 plays on the offensive side of the ball and a tired defense being gashed repeatedly by the Golden Eagles.
"Very difficult because the same thing happened the last time we were in this stadium a year ago," said Stoops, referring to UK blowing a 21-0 lead to Louisville in the 2015 season finale. "I thought we were way beyond that, and we weren't."
Stoops added it was the first time in his coaching career that he felt the need to apologize after a game. "That's a tough pill to swallow right there, and I do. I didn't think I would ever do that... Our fans deserved better."
Barker finished the game 15-for-24 for 323 yards passing and four touchdowns, but also fumbled twice, threw an interception and was sacked four times. The sour ending spoiled big nights for UK receiver Garrett Johnson (6 catches, 143 yards, 2 TD), linebacker Jordan Jones (19 tackles) and cornerback J.D. Harmon (2 interceptions).
In this AllWildcats "Rapid Recap" feature, we touch on some quick-hitters from the game...
What Went Wrong:
Kentucky seemed to have things perfectly under control as the Cats held a 35-10 lead with under a minute left in the first half and the crowd at Commonwealth Stadium was in fine spirits. But that's when the first of several huge momentum plays unfolded to begin the Golden Eagles' comeback.
The UK secondary allowed Isaiah Jones to get behind it for a 71-yard touchdown pass from Mullens with 26 seconds left in the half, an inexcusable miscue in that situation. A momentum landslide ensued.
The Cats' Blake McClain, who had one of the three interceptions in the first half, dropped an easy interception on USM's first drive of the third quarter. Given a second chance, the Eagles drove for a touchdown to slice the margin to 35-24. On UK's ensuing drive, the Cats appeared poised to respond, but Barker fumbled at the Eagles' 18-yard line. Another Mullens-led TD drive followed, and it was suddenly 35-31.
After USM surged ahead 38-35 on a Mullens quarterback sneak, Barker threw an interception on a deep ball, and all 57,230 at CWS could sense that the night was not going to end well for the home team.
Said Stoops: "We cannot let one play, or any play, and (let) the momentum punch us in the gut and take the wind out of us. And that's where I thought we were beyond that. Because you're always going to face adversity in games and in a season."
By The Numbers:
1st - UK quarterback to throw four touchdown passes in a half since Andre Woodson versus Florida in 2007.
2 - UK first downs in the second half.
3 - Sacks by UK, one each for Jordan Jones, Josh Allen and Denzil Ware. The Cats had just 17 sacks total in 2015.
+19 - First downs for USM, topping UK 33-14 in that category.
58-0 - The opponents' second-half scoring margin in the last two games at Commonwealth Stadium.
95 - Offensive snaps for Southern Miss compared to just 50 for the Cats.
"You could feel the momentum just start working against us and getting worse. It was like we couldn't do anything to break it up." -- UK quarterback Drew Barker.
Kentucky heads south to Florida for its SEC opener next weekend at "The Swamp." The Gators won their season opener 24-7 on Saturday against UMass.