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LSU quarterback Max Johnson (14) is sacked by the Kentucky defense in the first half, Saturday, October 9, 2021, at Kroger Field on the campus of the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Ky.

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Fans shook white towels and performed the wave around Kroger Field as fireworks blasted and they chanted “C-A-T-S, CATS CATS CATS'' deep into the night. Kentucky had sold out its stadium with a chance to remain undefeated, and its crowd partied while LSU’s season continued to spiral. Someone even proposed.

These programs entered the season with completely different histories. One had established itself as a power by controlling the line of scrimmage to win three national titles in the past two decades. The other never has reached the Southeastern Conference championship game.

But Saturday night, unranked LSU lost to No. 16 Kentucky. The Wildcats ran the ball and dominated along both fronts, beating LSU the way it used to defeat other teams. By the end of the 42-21 loss, LSU’s defenders were dragged across the turf as they tried to complete tackles.

The game was never all that close. Kentucky took a 14-0 lead in the first quarter. It held LSU scoreless into the second half. The Tigers trailed 35-7 in the fourth quarter before they made the score somewhat more respectable. Now they've lost two straight games, and the schedule will only get more difficult.

“It freakin' sucks,'' sophomore quarterback Max Johnson said of being 3-3. “I’m not going to lie. We’ve just got to come back to work on Monday.”

When coach Ed Orgeron looked at the stat sheet before his postgame news conference, he furrowed his brow. His lips tightened. Orgeron knew Kentucky ran the ball well through its zone scheme, but he looked frustrated as he saw 330 rushing yards listed on the paper in front of him.

LSU (3-3, 1-2 SEC) hadn’t struggled so much to stop the run since the season opener. The issue had been replaced by others over the last four weeks, from offensive tempo to LSU’s own run game. The defense had lately played well. But on a night when LSU finally re-established its rushing attack behind junior Tyrion Davis-Price, the Wildcats physically dominated at the line of scrimmage.

Kentucky averaged 7.3 yards per rush on 45 carries against an LSU defense playing without four injured starters. The Wildcats often sealed the edges of the front and opened huge holes. Kentucky recorded four carries over 20 yards as LSU’s defense once again allowed explosive plays, the main problem of the 2020 season. Kentucky reached 6-0 for the first time since 1950.

“I do believe we got beat at the point of attack,” Orgeron said. “I knew they were a good zone blocking team. We got cut out of our gaps. Sometimes it was physical at the point of attack. Sometimes it was just technique.”

The productive running game helped Kentucky quarterback Will Levis make easy throws against LSU's depleted secondary, which didn’t have All-American cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. or safety Major Burns and missed multiple assignments that led to touchdowns.

Levis had thrown an interception in every other game this season. He completed 14 of 17 passes for 145 yards and three touchdowns against LSU. Such a dominating win let him yell and flex while he walked along the sideline after the game. Kentucky averaged 7.7 yards per play.

Offensively, LSU actually had one of its best games on the ground after committing to run the football more this week. Davis-Price recorded a season-high 147 yards on 22 carries with his first and second touchdowns of the year.

“We started off not running the ball very well, but we were not going to abandon it,” Orgeron said. “We said we were going to stick with it.”

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But nothing else worked well. LSU’s offensive line struggled in pass protection, allowing four sacks. The entire offense was out-schemed by Kentucky. Johnson missed open receivers as the passing attack stalled drives. The Tigers went 1 for 5 on fourth down.

Johnson was sacked from his blind side and fumbled on LSU’s first possession. Kentucky recovered the ball. Soon, on fourth-and-goal from the 3-yard line, running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. leaked into the flat, and no one covered him. After LSU turned the ball over on downs on its next possession, Kentucky scored again to take a 14-0 lead.

Though LSU’s defense forced two straight punts to keep the score close before halftime, LSU didn’t cross midfield again in the first half. Its next three drives gained a total of 57 yards on 18 plays. Johnson struggled during the stretch, missing two open receivers on one possession.

“We’ve got to be more explosive in the first half,” said Johnson, who finished 22 of 38 for 261 yards and one touchdown.

As much as Kentucky physically dominated the first half, LSU only trailed by two scores at the break. It needed to force a punt on the opening drive of the third quarter. Instead, Rodriguez ripped off a 22-yard gain. Then Levis turned a short run into 33 yards. He barreled into the end zone on a quarterback sneak.

Davis-Price helped LSU finally score, but Kentucky never relented. It responded with a 10-play touchdown drive. Then, after LSU once again turned the ball over on downs in Kentucky territory, Levis found a wide open receiver for a 25-yard touchdown at the start of the fourth quarter.

The Tigers trailed 35-7 at that point. They scored twice, once by Davis-Price and then on a leaping touchdown grab from freshman wide receiver Malik Nabers, the first of his career. But Kentucky stretched the lead again on its next possession.

When LSU tried to score once more and Johnson was sacked on fourth down, Kentucky played “Callin’ Baton Rouge” over the loudspeakers.

The loss marked the lowest point in a season that has looked shaky from the beginning. First there was the loss to UCLA. Then Auburn won inside Tiger Stadium for the first time since 1999. But LSU hadn’t been dismantled like this. Kentucky looked closer to a championship, at least this season.

As a result, pressure increased on Orgeron to prove he can lead the program back to the prominence it reached two years ago. The Tigers are now 8-8 since the national championship.

Orgeron’s name began trending on Twitter in the first quarter. The comments weren’t positive.

“Stay together,” Orgeron said. “Stay together. It’s going to be tough. I understand that. But stay together. Let’s look at the film. Let’s coach better. Let’s play better. Let’s get ready for Florida. That’s all we can do."

Email Wilson Alexander at walexander@theadvocate.com