Don't look at the score, America. It wasn't that close. Don't listen to the pundits when they spout off about what Clemson did to lose the Music City Bowl. Don't listen to Lou "Spittle" Holtz when he pontificates about which team is clearly more talented.
Kentucky controlled Clemson for much of the first half, and throughout the second half on the way to a 28-20 victory -- the team's eighth of the year, to five losses -- and a sweet evening indeed for embattled head coach Rich Brooks.
Player of the game Andre' Woodson likely rocketed his NFL stock with a supremely confident and precise performance against the Tigers. The junior QB was 20-of-28 for 299 yards with three TD strikes.
But it was the defense -- my own area of concern -- that impressed. While it's true Clemson has struggled to score over their last four or five games, a month off to prepare certainly doesn't forgive "stuggles" on offense. This UK defensive unit simply showed up to play, and did that superbly. Trevard Lindley, a freshman in his first bowl game, had a diving interception in the end zone, then added to his day with a fumble recovery at a crucial time. Maybe the most exciting thing about the win is the role the team's youth had in it.
The win, the school's first in a postseason game since 1984, makes today an historic one for Kentucky football fans. For a program that as recently as two seasons ago won just two games, this afternoon's sold out Music City Bowl game against Clemson is a stunning and welcome reversal of fortunes. For Rich Brooks, head coach of the Cats, this season is nothing short of a godsend.
As late as mid-October of this season, folks were wondering if Brooks had used up his nine lives. A 49-zilch pasting by LSU was among the ugliest losses in recent years, and even the most patient fans were running out of good things to point to.
But something happened after that which had been notably absent at other tough times in the last six years -- the kids grew up. The team travelled to Starkville, Miss., and eked out a 34-31 win over Mississippi State. Beat writers at the game said the team's raucous postgame locker room seemed to feel like a turning point had occurred. Most of us cynics simply harumphed it away, with SEC bully Georgia coming to town the next week. Surely, it would be back to the woodshed again.
Not so fast.
Kentucky's pheonix-like rise from the ashes came full circle when the Cats protected their turf and handed the Bulldogs a shocking 24-20 defeat at Commonwealth Stadium, righting their season and putting the team one win away from bowl contention with two 'winnable' games to play. Heck, after the Georgia win, many wondered if the annual one-sided rivalry game against Tennessee might not be so one-sided for a change.
While the boys in blue were not able to repeat their heroics on the road in Knoxville -- losing a close one, 17-12 -- they had taken care of Vanderbilt and Louisiana-Monroe to qualify for a bowl game, and for the first time since 2002 had assured themselves of a winning season.
The Tigers may not have thought of this game as a revenge game, but UK fans did. It was against Clemson in 1993 that Kentucky (in true Big Blue football fashion) lost a heartbreaker in the Peach Bowl after star middle linebacker Marty Moore dropped a sure game-clinching interception in the final minute, opening the door for the winning score moments later.
But Brooks' young, talented offense and takeaway-infused defense took Nashville and its own Sea of Blue for a ride. The confidence following the faked punt call and subsequent long TD catch by Demareo Ford was palpable. The momentum had changed. Suddenly, a chance at an eight-win season, which would be the program's most wins since 1984 (nine), was more than just a hope.
All-SEC team members and junior stars Jacob Tamme (first-team TE), Keenan Burton (first-team WR) and Andre' Woodson (second-team QB) all played key roles in showing that even ole "terrible" Kentucky can put points on the board in a hurry.
The power backfield of junior Rafael Little and backup Tony Dixon kept the defense honest. And Terrell Bankhead broke off a couple of nice runs before succombing to injury.
Clemson's double-barreled running attack, however, had no such luck. No runs were game-changing, and neither scored. Only a late touchdown in the waning minute cut the score into respectability.
Answering my challenge (yeah, they all got that challenge), the players and coaches weren't content with just getting to this stage. The oddsmakers have had our boys as an 11-point dog throughout the week.
Who knew I shoulda bet the farm?