A few years ago while I was a head coach, we won a game after getting down big. When I was interviewed after the game, the first thing I said was “if we aren’t anything, we are interesting.”
That quote is a good way to describe Kentucky’s 29-26 victory over Tennessee at Kroger Field. If Kentucky football isn’t anything, it is interesting. But there is a shift happening in Lexington. Interesting isn’t good enough anymore. It’s time to produce and win.
The Cats had to survive four fumbles and 443 yards of Volunteer offense to get a huge victory Saturday night. But what seems to be the M.O. of this team, the Cats (6-2, 3-2 SEC) showed heart and grit when all seemed lost and flipped the all too familiar script of another heartbreaking loss to Tennessee (3-5, 0-5 SEC).
This isn’t like Kentucky football from years past. The Cats are doing the things necessary to not only survive and be competitive but be successful. Let’s assess this most recent performance.
OFFENSE: C I think RB Benny Snell Jr. and QB Stephen Johnson deserve As for their individual performances without question. Snell (27 carries, 180 yards) was a man among boys tonight, running with passion and authority. Johnson did what he does best as usual, run the offense and make winning plays. I would even give the offensive line high marks for improved play. They were aggressive and played with great pad level and aggression.
But I thought between late second quarter to the final drive of the game the Cats were very stagnant offensively. The Vols stacked the line limiting run lanes and the Cats were unable to make them pay with the pass. Going forward, Kentucky has to become more consistent passing the ball, especially when the run is clogged up. I’d also like to see TE CJ Conrad and WR Lynn Bowden Jr get more touches however they can get them. That can happen when the offense balances out.
DEFENSE: B- If you look at the defensive performance statistically, the Cats gave up 443 yards of total offense (272 rushing and 243 receiving). Not a good performance. But doing that neglects some great numbers for the Cats D. UK sacked QB Jarrett Guarantano seven times, had 12 tackles for losses, and probably most importantly played extremely well in the red zone. Inside the 20, Kentucky held Tennessee to four field goals (and two misses) in the second half when the game was on the line. Much of the yardage gained by UT was between the 20s and not inside the 20. Can the Cats improve defensively? Absolutely. But in the big picture, the defense made plays when they had to. It was the difference in the game.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A Once again, Kentucky’s special teams came up aces. Punter Matt Panton was his usual self, averaging 41.5 yards per kick. Kicker Austin MacGinnis made all three of his extra point attempts. Return man Lynn Bowden had 25 yards per kick return. Most importantly, the Cats held the Tennessee return game in check all game. That’s hard to quantify in numbers. Kentucky never gave the Vols great field position off kicks. That alone is enough for a high score.
It’s hard to put into words how big this win is for the Kentucky football program. Yes, with the win the Cats reach bowl eligibility with their sixth win of the season and stay within shouting distance of SEC east leader Georgia. That’s good stuff. But this win goes deeper. Florida and Tennessee have had Kentucky’s number for a generation. The Cats had a chance to exorcise that demon against Florida and came up a point short.
For most of Saturday night it seemed like Tennessee was going to continue the misery. But Kentucky is built a little different than past editions. They held it together with timely defense, solid special teams play, and sheer heart and guts (looking at you, Benny and Stephen.) The results were a special win in Kentucky football history.
So next up is the Ole Miss Rebels. The Rebs are coming off a 38-37 heartbreaking loss to Arkansas in which Ole Miss led 31-7 in the second quarter. This is another opportunity for the Cats to continue to climb the rankings and in conference play. The Cats should be favored in this tilt and next week at Vanderbilt. Win both of these and Kentucky goes to Athens to play Georgia with an 8-2 record and 5-2 in SEC play.
Wouldn’t that be interesting?
Shane Shackleford is a writer and retired coach and teacher residing in Speedwell, TN. You can contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, Facebook at Shane Shackleford, or Twitter @ shack_daddy_1.
Photo by Jamie H. Vaught