Finally, the Kentucky Wildcat football team (4-3, 1-3) has laid to rest the interminable 17 game losing streak to The Visor, (otherwise known as Steve Spurrier), in addition, the Cats, in exciting fashion, put down the maddening 10 game losing streak to the 10th ranked South Carolina Gamecocks (4-2, 2-2) 31-28 at Commonwealth Stadium.
How's that for killing two birds with one Operation Win stone?
There are plenty of superlatives and game balls to go around, so follow me after the jump for the particulars.
Down 28-10 at halftime, and looking like a team ready to call it a night, the Cats in the second half emerged from the tunnel with a rather large chip on their shoulders, and took the fight directly to the Gamecocks (Who were without stud running back Marcus Lattimore due to an injury; Lattimore had 79 rushing yards, to go along with 133 receiving yards, and three touchdowns in the opening stanza). After allowing about 1,000 yards of offense in the first half, the Kentucky defense (Steve Brown must be the second happiest man in Lexington tonight) limited Steve Spurrier's club to drives of 46, -2, -10, 2, and 49 yards, and a total of 103 yards in the second stanza, and most importantly, a goose egg on the scoreboard. The Cats, on the other hand, gained 247 yards of offense and scored three touchdowns. But, ironically, it was the UK secondary which sealed the huge victory: With 11 ticks of the clock remaining, SC quarterback Stephen Garcia tossed a 20-yard pass to the end zone, but, on a terrific play, the ball was tipped by UK's Cartier Rice, and picked-off by cornerback Anthony Mosley (that made four turnovers for the Gamecocks to UK's zero). Much joyous celebration ensued as the Cats and their fans relished in the biggest comeback in Kentucky football history.
Now, for the men in blue who brought the Cats back from the brink of defeat, to sweet victory:
Leading the feline feeding frenzy is the most criticized Wildcat football player since Shane Boyd, senior quarterback Mike Hartline:
All the big man from Ohio accomplished in one evenings work was to go 32-42 through the air for 349 yards, four touchdowns, and zero turnovers (Hartline's pass efficiency rating was 177.42, the highest since Andre' Woodson in a game versus Florida Atlantic in 2007: Hat Tip to John Clay of the Herald-Leader). As his numbers suggest, Hartline was simply magnificent. He was on-target all night (a familiar refrain this year), and created time and space for himself with his legs. Hartline simply looks as comfortable in the pocket as he ever has; stepping up, reading routes, and firing away. And Hartline's game-winning 24-yard touchdown pass to Randall Cobb on 4th & 7 with 1:15 remaining in the game, qualifies as the biggest pass in recent Kentucky football history. Not surpassing Andre' Woodson's game-winner to Stevie Johnson to beat No. 9 Louisville in 2007, but it sure comes close.
Over his last three games, Hartline has completed 82 of 116 passes (70.7%), good for seven touchdowns and only one interception. SEC-caliber numbers? I think so. Hartline has made the long, difficult journey from limited quarterback, to a signal-caller with seemingly no limitations.
Congratulations Mr. Hartline, this is a game you can tell the grandkids about.
Next in the line for a game ball is senior wide receiver Chris Matthews:
Other than a totally unnecessary personal foul penalty which wiped out a big Randall Cobb run, Matthews was extraordinary: 12 catches for 177 yards (14.8 yards per catch) and one touchdown.
It's quite obvious that Matthews is running stronger routes, running the right routes, and putting himself in position to utilize his 6-5 frame more effectively. He made several outstanding grabs, and his yards after the catch numbers were significant.
JUCO receivers, almost as a rule, take a year to fully develop and learn the major college "do's and don'ts," and Matthews seems to not be an exception. And on a night when the Cats were without their top running back in Derrick Locke, and in need of something more from each of the offensive players, Matthews made the most of his chances.
Congratulations to Mr. Matthews, he just played the fourth-best single receiving yardage game in Kentucky history, behind only Craig Yeast (269 yards receiving versus Vandy in 1998; 206 receiving yards versus Florida, also in '98) and Rick Kestner (185 yards receiving versus Ole Miss in 1964). Furthermore, Matthews' 12 catches represents the second highest number of single-game receptions in Kentucky history (tied with tight end James Whalen and receiver Derek Abney), trailing only Craig Yeast, who had 16 catches versus Vandy in '98.
Randall Cobb ... what can anyone say?
All this guy does is play with as much, if not more, determination and guts than any player in Kentucky football history (or, at least over the last 30 years).
In perhaps the second biggest play of the night (with the Cats down 28-17 early in the fourth quarter), Cobb, on 4th & 1 at midfield, gained 12 yards for a momentum swinging first down. The very next play Hartline hit Matthews for a 38-yard touchdown strike, bringing the Cats within five points.
On the night, Cobb caught eight passes for 63 yards, including a 24-yard touchdown, and ran the ball eight times for 27 yards -- Cobb is also now the all-time touchdown leader in UK history, surpassing Craig Yeast's 32 career TD's with his reception for six tonight.
Cobb's numbers aren't awe-inspiring, but the yards he gained were vital, and his leadership and never-say-die attitude, coupled with a look (indicating scary determination) that would kill even the most frightful ghoul, were key elements in this Kentucky win.
Perhaps the highest compliment one can pay any athlete -- Would any Kentucky football fan trade Cobb for any other player in the country? ... I think not.
So a big congratulations to Mr. Cobb, for finally, the toughness and determination he has displayed proudly all season has been rewarded.
Also deserving of recognition are the aforementioned Anthony Mosley, who intercepted Garcia's final pass of the game, and Cartier Rice; he of the tipped pass ... Safety Winston Guy led the Cats with 8.5 tackles, and also intercepted a pass ... Linebacker Danny Trevathan played an outstanding game (especially in the second half), and was second on the team with 8.0 tackles, one tackle for loss, and a forced fumble ... Defensive end Taylor Wyndham recorded a sack, and generally played with abandon for most of the contest (sometimes a good thing, sometimes a bad thing) ... Wide-out La'Rod King caught only four passes, but two were for six; one in each half: A 10 yard score which were UK's first points of the game, and a five-yard TD reception in the third quarter. King, although he did have an on-target drop, continues to show-off his tremendously sure hands, and ability to run tight routes.
And happily, a heartfelt and much deserved congratulations to UK head coach Joker Phillips. Phillips did something former Kentucky coaches Bill Curry, Hal Mumme, Guy Morris, and Rich Brooks could not do -- Beat Steve Spurrier. With Phillips' Cats sitting at 4-3, and a favorable schedule on the horizon, his team now has a legitimate chance to fulfill the potential many thought possible (including me) in the preseason.
And to Steve Brown ... you can now get a restful nights sleep.
And finally, a note to Bob Davie, ESPN color analyst, who repeatedly stated in the first half that UK didn't have the horses to play with a team the caliber of South Carolina: Sometimes it's not about the number of stars next to a players name, instead, it's about the size of the heart inside his chest.
The Georgia Bulldogs are up next for the Cats. You know what that means ... bad news for the Bulldogs.
Cat fans, vigorously revel in the win! While at the same time congratulating a very, very good SC squad.
Thanks for reading, and Go Cats!