SHANE SHACKLEFORD: Is UK Football Turning The Corner?
It had been a trying week for Kentucky’s football program.
A week ago last Saturday, the Cats stood 6-2, had a reeling Ole Miss team coming into Common…uh, Kroger Field with the chance for UK to move to 7-2 and, more importantly, seize the opportunity to reach eight wins before visiting an always tough Vanderbilt club for win No. 9.
Then, with under a minute to go in that Ole Miss game with the Cats winning 34-30 and the Rebels driving, Kentucky forces a fumble and recovers it. Cats ball, just a victory formation away from victory.
But….there always seems a but with Kentucky football, isn’t there?
The fumble call is reversed (and rightly so), and, with five seconds left, Ole Miss hits on a TD pass and just like that, the Cats lose 37-34 and, just like that, the dreaded D word crept about as UK fell to 6-3.
Were the Cats on the right track? Where has the defense went to? Why does the offense seem to stumble in the second half?
Doubt. It seems to be in the Wildcat football fan’s DNA.
Going into last Saturday's game at Vandy, doubt was either on the tongue or in the mind of most Cat fans. Sure, we heard all the right things from UK’s coaches and players leading up to the game. Prepared. Focused. Ready to play.
But, doubt in the Cats is rooted pretty deep. Like the weeds around a fence line, doubt is deep and doesn’t come out easily.
So when the first two possessions for Kentucky were punt and a lost fumble by QB Stephen Johnson occurred, that ugly D word showed up again.
But something interesting happened when it was needed the worst.
Something I call confidence.
The Wildcat offense took the field after a Ralph Webb TD run and dominated the Vandy defense, erupting for eight scoring drives on 10 trips for 44 points. The much-maligned Wildcat defense held the ‘Dores to 60 yards rushing on 20 carries and forced four interceptions. Special teams were, indeed, special again for the Cats. All told, the Wildcats left Memorial Stadium with a huge 44-21 win.
The Cats needed confidence in the worst way. It’s hard to remain confident, even for the most ardent believer, when every play, every score, every everything is on a razor’s edge just waiting for the next oh no moment. But this most recent Wildcat performance had that one word attached to it.
Now, I know one win doesn’t make up for decades of almost getting around the corner as a program. But this group is different. While programs in Gainesville and Knoxville are complete messes, Kentucky finds itself at 7-3 with a chance to measure where they are with a trip next Saturday to face a Georgia team smarting from an unexpected loss to Auburn. To many observers, it was just a win over Vandy. To me, it was a win that could help the program to turn the corner and give these Cats a little more…
Shane Shackleford is a sportswriter, and retired teacher and coach residing in Speedwell, Tenn. You can email Shane at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Facebook at Shane Shackleford, or on Twitter @shack_daddy_1.