BOZICH | Post-Snap Read: Kentucky punches its bowl ticket, sagging Tennessee
Kentucky treated Tennessee the way the Volunteers have usually treated the Wildcats, rallying for a fourth-quarter touchdown and a 29-26 win Saturday night at Kroger Field.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – This Kentucky football team doesn’t do pretty. It doesn’t do dominating. It certainly doesn’t do stress-free or cruise-control easy.
But, this season, somehow the final scoreboard snapshot usually looks the way it is supposed to look – with the Wildcats ahead.
Saturday night at Kroger Field the farewell snapshot was Kentucky 29, Tennessee 26.
Mark it down as a victory that will be remembered as the Wildcats’ second in 33 tries against the Volunteers as well as one that certified Mark Stoops’ team as bowl eligible for the second consecutive season.
Mark it down as a victory likely to inspire a coaching search at Tennessee. In fact, about an hour after the game there was a report that Tennessee coach Butch Jones had been informed he will not return next season.
“It was anything but pretty tonight,” Stoops said on the SEC Network after the game. “But the final score certainly was.”
This is a short list of what was not pretty:
Four Kentucky fumbles, all of them scooped up by Tennessee. A passing game that looked as if it was designed in 1967, completing only seven throws. A running game that stalled for a major chunk of the second half.
Tennessee possessed the ball for nearly 17 more minutes than Kentucky. The Wildcats were outgained by 74 yards.
Don’t forget the game’s final play -- a frightening 48-yard pass, that led to a Tennessee receiver landing three yards from a game-winning touchdown before Kentucky received the all-clear to celebrate.
“We made a lot of mistakes but we’re grateful to get the win,” said Stoops, who joined Joker Phillips as the only UK coaches to defeat Tennessee since Jerry Claiborne.
By now, Stoops’ central nervous and digestive systems should be conditioned to 60-minutes of acid reflux. The victory was Kentucky’s fourth by seven points or less. It was another game when the Wildcats needed to show they could rally in the fourth quarter.
With 4:43 to play, the Wildcats trailed, 26-21. They had not scored since there was nearly six minutes to play in the second quarter. They had been behind for nearly 15 consecutive minutes. They had gained six yards in the fourth quarter.
Enter the two guys you expect to enter for Kentucky when substantial plays need to be made – quarterback Stephen Johnson and halfback Benny Snell.
Johnson had already been to the training room in the second half after sustaining an injury in the third quarter. Snell had been nearly unstoppable in the first half, rambling for 124 yards and three touchdowns before the Wildcats’ running game stalled.
The Wildcats needed 78 yards – and Johnson and Snell provided all 78 of them.
An 11-yard run by Snell. A 16-yard pass from Johnson to receiver Tavin Richardson. A 12-yard run by Johnson. Two more runs by Snell for 11 and eight yards. Snell again, this time to the Tennessee 11.
Johnson tried to win it with a pass to tight end C.J. Conrad in the end zone. Incomplete.
Next time Johnson took care of it himself, slicing through the Volunteers defense for the final 11 yards, vaulting over a pair of tacklers near the goal line.
“Our offense was struggling, but we battled, we hung in there, we made one drive at the end,” Stoops said. “It’s wonderful. I’m so glad we pulled it out.”
Now that Kentucky has six victories, it is reasonable to think about seven, eight or nine. The only remaining game that appears unwinnable is the Nov. 18 trip to unbeaten Georgia, the leader in the East Division of the Southeastern Conference.
Kentucky’s three other opponents – Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Louisville – all lost Saturday. The Rebels and the Commodores are 3-5 and Louisville (5-4) is a team the Wildcats defeated on the road last season.
But the Wildcats already have one rivalry victory, this one against Tennessee, which slipped to 3-5, winless in five SEC games.
“It means a great deal to our team, our fans, our program,” Stoops said.
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