By Jamie H. Vaught
The Big Blue Nation is bubbling with enthusiasm this week after the football Wildcats' stunning performance in their near-upset bid against Florida, dropping in a three-overtime 36-30 thriller at The Swamp Saturday night.
After five straight losing campaigns, including 2-10 squads in 2012 and 2013, Kentucky has begun to see the light of future success under second-year boss Mark Stoops, who nearly snatched his first signature victory against the Gators.
As my KyForward colleague and friend Steve Flairty noted on his Facebook post, the Wildcats sure "looked real SECish."
The 2-1 Cats now know they can play with the big boys from the powerful SEC and not get blown away like the other UK teams have often done in the past.
"We definitely saw progress in how we played tonight," said Kentucky true freshman wide receiver Garrett Johnson, who caught two third-quarter TD passes of 60 and 33 yards from Patrick Towles. "Like you said, we didn’t come out with a victory, which was what we wanted, but that’ll just be fuel for the fire. [We] just continue to get better and use that as energy and motivation for the weeks to come."
Stoops said it was a very difficult setback for the Cats and he can't complain about the squad's remarkable performance.
"I was just very proud of our team’s effort, the way they came into a hostile environment, really played with a lot of poise and did a lot of good things," said the UK coach. "We just didn’t make enough plays to win, so we will get back to work. I feel very good about this team and the direction we are going. And we will get back to work."
If the youthful Cats can stay healthy and play hard like they did against Florida, they could possibly go either 6-6 or even 7-5 this season, but that might be too much to ask.
Nevertheless, it should be a fun football season in BBN.
Some pigskin leftovers:
---Towles' 369-yard passing performance against the Gators was the most allowed by Florida since Michigan passed for 373 yards in a 2007 season bowl game.
---UK hasn't allowed a first-half touchdown through the first three games of the season. And it marks the first time since 1988 that the Wildcats have held three consecutive opponents without a TD in the first half.
---Leading the Kentucky defense in tackles against UF were Fred Tiller (11), Za'Darius Smith (11) and Josh Forrest (10).
---Kentucky had to play with three redshirted freshmen in the offensive line -- Nick Haynes at left tackle, Cole Mosier at left guard and Ramsey Meyers at right guard -- as Zach West did not play due to an injury and Darrian Miller had to leave the contest in the second quarter.
---Redshirted freshman placekicker Austin MacGinnis had been inconsistent with his kicks, but he was much better on the road last Saturday night, making field goals from 35, 51 and 26 yards before missing a 41-yard field goal in the third overtime. The 5-10, 168-pounder from Alabama is now 6-for-10 on the year in field goal attempts.
---It appears there was an officiating blunder at the end of the first overtime when the play clock expired but Florida managed to pull it off with a Jeff Driskel's 9-yard TD pass to tie the game at 27-27. Late Sunday, the SEC office issued a statement, saying the officials have applied the proper mechanics and guidelines that are in place to determine when a flag should be thrown for delay of game. The play clock issues apparently are not reviewable.
---In case you have forgotten, Florida's Will Muschamp, 43, was an assistant on Roy Kidd's coaching staff at Eastern Kentucky University in 1999. He is the second-youngest head coach in the SEC behind Mississippi State's Dan Mullen, who is 42.
While in high school, Muschamp once had a 17-inch steel rod inserted in his leg after a baseball injury. He now keeps the steel rod in a shadowbox in his office to remind players about overcoming adversity.
---Mike Summers, a former Kentucky assistant who is Joe B. Hall's son-in-law, is an assistant coach for the Gators, working with the offensive line.
---SEC Network's traveling pre-game show, SEC Nation, will be in Lexington for the Kentucky-South Carolina showdown on Saturday, Oct. 4. The show, featuring Joe Tessitore, Tim Tebow, Marcus Spears, Paul Finebaum and Kaylee Hartung, will bring the sights and sounds of every SEC campus before the college football season ends. SEC Nation airs live on SEC Network every Saturday from 10 a.m. - noon ET. For this coming weekend, the SEC Nation will be at Alabama for the Crimson Tide-Gator contest.
---Kentucky's next opponent, Vanderbilt, got lucky last Saturday when it bounced back to defeat UMass 34-31. The Commodores (1-2) trailed by 11 in the second half and saw UMass miss a game-tying 22-yard FG with two seconds remaining. By the way, Vandy first-year coach Derek Mason and UMass boss Mark Whipple attended the same high school in Phoenix, Ariz.
---With UK's next two games coming against the Commodores and the Gamecocks, you may want to watch the South Carolina-at-Vanderbilt game on the SEC Network this weekend. It kicks off at 7:30 p.m. ET.
---My quick (and revised) forecast for Sept. 27's Vanderbilt-at-Kentucky contest: UK by 14.
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. The editor of KySportsStyle360.com online magazine is also a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. Reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle360@gmail.com.