LEXINGTON, Kentucky — Kentucky just needed to build on a 24-7 halftime lead on Louisville to make its postseason drought a distant memory.
That finishing effort never materialized against the rival Cardinals, who were virtually unstoppable over the final 30 minutes and handed the Wildcats a 38-24 loss Saturday and left players and coach Mark Stoops wondering what went wrong — again — in the annual Governor's Cup game.
Kentucky's pain was about more than losing bragging rights to Louisville for a fifth straight year. The Wildcats finished their second straight 5-7 season and would need a lot of help to earn their first bowl bid since 2010. Immediately afterward, Stoops was wondering how a 4-1 start ended with his team on the outside looking in on the bowl picture.
"It's a setback. It is. It's disappointing," the coach said. "Nobody wants to see a change more than myself and the staff and these players that are working hard. It hurts. I understand the frustration, believe me; very clearly. We've got to do a better job, but we're going to do that.
"We're going to go back to work. And we need to get a lot tougher in the offseason. It starts there," Stoops said.
The Wildcats seemed headed toward ending their postseason drought after 10 1/2 minutes when senior linebacker Josh Forrest returned an interception 81 yards for a TD and a 21-0 lead. A.J. Stamps preceded that huge play by picking off Kyle Bolin to set up Boom Williams' 6-yard run two plays later, which came after quarterback Drew Barker's 1-yard TD run got the Wildcats started on their opening drive.Everything after that belonged to Louisville and mobile freshman quarterback Lamar Jackson in relief of Bolin.
Jackson accounted for 316 yards and three touchdowns, Brandon Radcliff ran for two TDs and Louisville scored 31 unanswered points for its fifth-straight win in the series that's now even at 14.
That part bothered Stoops the most.
"We're not very pleased with the way we finished again," he said. "I know the fans are not happy. And I'm not happy. It's disappointing. It's tough."
Jackson finished with 186 yards rushing and TDs of 16 and 13 yards on 17 carries. Wildcats fans that held out hope for a victory on a dreary day began exiting Commonwealth Stadium after his final score with 4:02 left.
Jackson also threw for 130 yards, including a 35-yard TD to James Quick.
"It was definitely hard to stop him," defensive end Farrington Huguenin said of Jackson. "He has a quick twitch. We should have played better on that."
Louisville gained 489 yards, including 325 in the second half.
The Cardinals' defense meanwhile clamped down to hold Kentucky to 143 yards over the final three quarters and 291 overall in denying the Wildcats' postseason quest for a second consecutive season.
"Obviously, we didn't get off to the best start," Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said. "We rallied at halftime. They did a good job of keeping their poise and we came out and competed extremely hard in the second half and found a way to come back and win the game."
Jackson's arm and feet led the way, and Kentucky had no resistance against him or running back Brandon Radcliff.
Radcliff ran for TDs of 6 and 4 yards, the last putting Louisville ahead 31-24 with 10:17 remaining. He finished with 62 yards on 14 carries.
Barker was 6 of 22 passing for 128 yards and was just 1 of 14 for minus-1 in the second half. Williams had 37 yards rushing on seven carries before leaving in the second quarter after re-injuring his right elbow.
Patrick Towles completed 3 of 4 passes for 71 yards in relief of Barker and was moving Kentucky downfield. But the comeback quest ended with an interception with two minutes remaining.
Hope still remains for the Wildcats, who just have to channel it toward 2016.
"We have a lot of good young players," Barker said. "There is definitely a lot to look forward to. Just have to go into the offseason and hit it harder than we ever have."