CRAWFORD | Johnson, Kentucky strike winning pose in 41-38 upset - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Johnson, Kentucky strike winning pose in 41-38 upset of Louisville

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- This celebration had been a long time coming, and it was a long time ending.

It raged from the minute Austin MacGinnis' 47-yard field goal split the uprights to put Kentucky up 41-38 on No. 11-ranked Louisville with seconds to play. It lasted through the ensuing kickoff, through the game's final play, through Gov. Matt Bevin handing the Governor's Cup trophy to the Wildcats, through the players' celebrating with fans (complete with 'L's down!' chants). It was still going when coach Mark Stoops began his news postgame conference, the locker room roaring.

"Somebody shut that door," Stoops said in the interview room, before he began.

"A very exciting, emotional win, one that our program desperately needed and deserved," Stoops said.

And that wasn't the half of it. As Stoops opened the door 15 minutes later to leave, the celebration in the locker room was still going. Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart leaned against a hallway wall, listening to the joyful noise inside. I asked him what it was like to listen to that, knowing what it was like when Stoops was 0-2, and the grumbling he was hearing.

"I'll tell you, what Mark did better than anybody else I've seen is shut out the noise," Barnhart said. "He just focused on us. And I'm so proud of him for that. There was a lot of noise. A lot of noise. It's emotional, for families and wives and young guys, and I'm so happy for these seniors and all these guys. So if there's a little dancing and signing and having fun, they've earned it."

And the celebration raged on.

There had been some question as to how Louisville's team would come into this game, coming off a disappointing loss at Houston that knocked it from College Football Playoff contention. But the Cards opened sharp. The first play from scrimmage was a 42-yard completion from Lamar Jackson to Jaylen Smith. The Cardinals went 84 yards in only three plays, with Jackson scampering into the end zone from 19 yards out, then striking a Heisman pose.

I've seen those kinds of starts before. In this building, they usually lead to an avalanche. After fast starts this season, Louisville buried Charlotte 70-14 and Florida State 63-20. It got off to a similar fast start in a 54-13 win over North Carolina State. But in this game, the fast start fizzled.

Kentucky took the ensuing kickoff, and ESPN cameras showed junior quarterback Stephen Johnson at the line, grinning. He had gotten the defensive look he wanted. He took the snap, feinted right just a bit, then dropped back left, looked off a safety and hit receiver Garrett Johnson in stride for a 75-yard touchdown pass.

Message sent. Kentucky wasn't letting Louisville go anywhere.

"Seeing the defense I saw, I just knew I had to look off the safety and come back another way to complete that pass," Johnson said.

For the past two seasons, the Kentucky rallying cry has been "finish." The Wildcats fell short for two straight years trying to collect a sixth victory. They fell short in two straight games against Louisville, after taking early leads. On this day, they finished.

I remember very clearly, in the preseason, talking on the air with Rick Bozich about keys for Kentucky football this season and saying, "One is to pray for Drew Barker, because if they lose him, nobody knows if they have anyone who can step in and do that job."

Nobody did know. But we all found out. Johnson, a transfer who stepped in when Barker went down early in the season, a guy who suffered from Tourette's syndrome as a child and who began his college career at Grambling then transferred to College of the Desert in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., before extended his only Power 5 scholarship offer, was more than able to step in and do the job. And more than that, he was the most valuable player in this game.

He completed 16 of 27 passes for 338 yards and a touchdown. He torched the Cardinals with touchdown passes of 75, 63 and 35 yards. He ran for 83 yards on eight carries. And he answered every punch Louisville threw with one of his own.

"Stephen was really amazing, really," Stoops said. "Just like we've been talking, he's just so poised. He pulls it down, he scrambles, he runs when he has to. Even a batted pass (in the third quarter), fortunate to get that back and run for it, but he has a knack for making plays. He threw the deep ball beautifully. We even had some drops in there that would've kept some drives going, but he has a lot of poise and we knew it was going to take just a great team effort. Everybody was going to have to do their part. They're extremely explosive, and fortunately we matched that."

Jackson was good. He threw for 281 yards and two touchdowns. He ran for 171 yards and two touchdowns. But twice when he was leading Louisville to possibly decisive drives late in the game, he flinched. He had a little too much on a pass to tight end Cole Hikutini that sailed through the receiver's hands and into the waiting grasp of Blake McClain at the goal line early in the fourth quarter. And again, with a chance for a go-ahead touchdown, on first down at the UK 9, Jackson was brought down and fumbled. Kentucky's Courtney Love recovered.

"We weren’t playing Louisville today; we were playing Lamar Jackson," Kentucky linebacker Jordan Jones said. "You shut him down, you shut down the team and that’s what we did."

It wasn't necessarily a shut-down performance. But when they needed big plays against Jackson, they got them.

"Lamar is a great player," Love said. "I voted for him for the Heisman Trophy. He made a lot of great plays. But we were able to make some, too. We covered the ball when he fumbled, then I was just hanging on while guys were trying to knock it out. I'm just happy we were able to come out with the win."

"We wanted the ball out of his hands and in somebody else's hands," Kentucky linebacker Denzil Ware said. "But he did his thing. Respect. But we didn't give up. And we didn't flinch. Coach Stoops talks about that all the time -- not flinching. He scored, and we had to deal with it, but we didn't flinch. Everybody did their job. ... We said we wanted this game worse than a bowl game. I've been trying to hold back the tears. There's seniors in there who have shed some tears. I'm very happy for my teammates." 

Kentucky ran for 221 yards, more than any team has rushed for this season against Louisville. It rolled up 581 yards of offense. Kentucky went 10 of 18 on third down, and in the third quarter played the kind of keep-away game that Stoops hoped to see, rolling up 13:07 of possession to 1:53 for Louisville.

"Eddie (Gran) and I talked about that walking out at halftime because we hit some big shots but we only had 27 plays and they had 45 in the first half," Stoops said. "If it stayed that way we would have a hard time at the end of the game. So, it was really nice. We were still picking our spots and making big plays but possessing the ball and being physical was a big part of our identity."

It's an identity no one was sure UK would have after it began the season 0-2. But it got that identity when Johnson moved into the QB spot, established the running game as the strength of the offense, and steadily made himself a better passer, to the point where he threw the deep ball with incredible accuracy in one of the bigger upsets in the program's modern history on Saturday. It was UK's first win over a ranked team on the road since beating Louisville 22-17 in the season-opener in 2002.

In this game, UK played like the team that better knew its strengths, and was more disciplined about playing to them. It also was the team that made fewer mistakes. The offensive stats were fairly even. But Kentucky got the takeaways, and that's why it took the Governor's Cup trophy from its Louisville home.

Just before taking possession of that trophy, as MacGinnis lined up for his field goal, many of his teammates couldn't watch. Love said he usually doesn't watch, but he did this time.

"He won the Mississippi State game for us. I knew he had it," Love said.

"Biggest kick ever," MacGinnis said. "Beating your in-state rival, what could be better?"

Not much, right now, for Kentucky. You want bragging rights? Jackson likely will still go on to win the Heisman. The Wildcats gave their fans this gift: Whenever a Louisville fan mentions it, Kentucky fans have the reminder: "Couldn't beat us, though." As I am typing this, Freddie Maggard of Kentucky Sports Radio and the Kentucky Radio Network has tweeted that fans are gathered at Commonwealth Stadium, celebrating in Lexington. There might be more there than were there to see the Wildcats clinch a bowl berth against Austin Peay a week ago.

The value of wins like this one? The next time they open the doors of the place, you can bet there will be more people there. Johnson will return as a force to be reckoned with, though he'll have to compete for his job in the spring. And Kentucky has broken through the bowl barrier, and ended Louisville's winning streak in the rivalry series, which had pulled the Cardinals even at 14-14 with UK. But they were unable to put a nose in front.

"There's so many things," Stoops told reporters. "I don't know if I can characterize it, I don't know. There's a lot of emotions going through there - still are. Two weeks in a row you've been trying to get me (to cry) in here. You know I'm a tough guy from Youngstown, I can't show my emotions. It's just really a lot of things going through your mind and there's so many people that these wins and losses affect. Our fan base has waited a long time and we knew the ups-and-downs that we've gone through, but they deserve a football team that they're proud of. These players care. They work hard. Our administration has been so supportive and (UK president) Dr. Eli Capilouto and Mitch Barnhart, in the middle of 0-2 and playing like crap for a half of the third game, didn't budge for a second and I can truthfully say that. When you feel that kind of support, you just put your head down and go to work and control the things you can control and get better, so it effects a lot of people. I'm really happy for everybody, I really am."

From the looks of the celebration that is still raging, a lot of other people are, too.

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