LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – In 1984, I was a junior in high school. Mark Stoops was a senior. Johnny Majors was coach at Tennessee. Donald Trump was still on his first wife. The top-grossing movie was "Ghostbusters." And Kentucky football was winning in Knoxville.
That had not happened again until Saturday, when Stoops and his Wildcats swaggered into Neyland Stadium and dominated a favored Tennessee team that was never in the game after a couple of second-quarter pick sixes.
Score it Kentucky 34, Tennessee 7. Another ghost subdued by Stoops’ Wildcats, this one in emphatic fashion. It was UK’s largest margin of victory over Tennessee since 1935.
Add a note: After back-to-back losses to open the season, Kentucky has found its defensive footing, is still probing for more offensive punch, but is very much a team that can hope to stand toe-to-toe in the tough Southeastern Conference schedule that awaits it.
"Obviously could not be more proud of our football team, just the way we've responded over the past couple of weeks," Stoops said. "Early in the season we had some tough losses, but it's not for a lack of effort. Our guys have had the right effort. I think we've cleaned things up. We've seen what we can do and put it together on all sides. We've seen spurts of that. The good news is we haven't put it all together yet."
Those two early losses were opportunities lost, but they were also opportunities to improve, and Kentucky has done that.
After a first quarter in which the two offenses struggled to mount threats, Kentucky’s defense put the game away with a couple of knockout plays in the second.
Kelvin Joseph picked off a Jarrett Guantanamo pass and returned it 41 yards for a touchdown to start the scoring for Kentucky. Several plays later, Jamin Davis intercepted a Guantanamo pass and gutted out an 85-yard return to put the Wildcats up 14-0.
The second pick chased Guantanamo from the game in favor of J.T. Shrout, who promptly threw an interception on his first pass.
"I definitely feel like our defense is getting sharper," Stoops said. "We'd seen signs of that in the first two games, but we weren't nearly as consistent as we've been in these last two. Obviously, creating turnovers has been very big for us and very helpful to the outcome of the games. But we've just played cleaner overall, so, yeah, I feel like we're getting really close."
That made for nine interceptions, three returned for touchdowns, in six quarters for the UK defense. All the offense had to do was hold the line from that point – but it did a bit better than that. It scored on each of its first three second-half drives and chewed up the game’s final 7:19 in the fourth.
Stoops said those early interceptions, "were really important. We were doing some things offensively, but you know it's a well-coached defense. ... It was going to be tough. To get the pick six is big. It flips it; it puts pressure on them, and then to back it up and get another one was really good. ... We're on a pretty good roll with some turnovers, and that gives confidence to the team."
It was a second straight game in which Kentucky’s defense scored enough points by itself to win the game.
The Wildcats averaged only 4.8 yards per play but gave up only 4.3.
Terry Wilson completed 12 of 15 passes for 101 yards and a touchdown. Chris Rodriguez carried the ball 13 times for 73 yards and a score.
Scrawl Wilson's name into the program's history book as only the second QB to win games at Florida and at Tennessee. Saturday's win continued a practice under Stoops of ending long and infamous streaks. Stoops calls it "knocking down doors." But it's having to do less of that lately.
"Yeah, on the knocking down doors, I'll say it again: We haven't had to hear too much of that lately, and I'm glad for that, grateful for our team that we've been knocking down a lot of doors, and this is another one," Stoops said. "But again, I don't really like our team inheriting 20, 30 years of history. That's not on these guys. We're responsible for what we've done lately."
The Wildcats now stay on the road to face Missouri on Saturday in a reworked SEC schedule. But they'll pack plenty of momentum with them.
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