"Let me do this first: I've got to tell you, I've been doing this a long time. Coaching is coaching, whether it's baseball, basketball, fast break, whatever it is, volleyball. For our football team to do what they did today, for Matt Roark to do what he did today, for Joker (Phillips) and his staff to keep that team together and do what they did with a wide receiver at quarterback, that may go down as one of the greatest wins in the history of our athletic department."
Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari
The irony is dripping, from the top of Commonwealth Stadium, down the ramps and onto the turf. For the first time in 26 years the Kentucky Wildcat football team can claim victory over the Tennessee Volunteers by the most lovely score of all, 10-7. How unlikely was this Big Blue win?
Well, let me count the ways -- UK had a wide receiver in Matt Roark maligned for his too-numerous-to-count drops, suddenly become the second coming of Tim Tebow, bulling his way to 130 yards rushing, after not having played quarterback since high school; UK had a middling to lower level SEC defense bow their backs (Hat Tip: Jerry Claiborne) and attack the Vols with an aggressive vengeance, limiting the big plays to one, and forcing three, difference-making Tennessee turnovers; UK had a fourth string, walk-on running back score their only touchdown of the day; UK had a head coach in a seat so furiously flaming hot (at least as far as the fans are concerned), dry ice would be insufficient to cool him off (reminiscent of one Rich Brooks), but in the span of five days, he taught his team the basics of the option offense, and voilà, the absolute least likely Kentucky team to beat UT rose triumphantly to the challenge and came out on top of Rocky Top.
Thickening the irony surrounding the win is the fact that UK has had a better or equal team to the Vols over the last several years, but like many of the Wildcat teams before them, the superior 'Cats found (and sometimes invented) ways to lose, or worse, were the victims of such bad luck it should be considered criminal. Losses piled up one on the other, losses were dissected, losses were bemoaned as Kentucky being Kentucky -- the team that finds a way to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory.
Leave it to the 4-7 team, though, to show the rest how its done. But not just any 4-7 UK team. No, this team has been attacked from all angles since the season-opening "win" over WKU. Fans, bloggers, radio show hosts, columnists, and former players have all castigated this team into oblivion, labeling the players as underachieving buffoons, and the Wildcat coaching staff as incompetent. Unlike any other four win team in memory, this team has been the butt of jokes, and cast as the boys who brought UK football back to earth after five-straight bowl appearances, the longest such streak in school history.
The hecklers gave little weight to the loss of all-world Randall Cobb, or super running back, and four-year contributor, Derrick Locke, or exceptional wide out Chris Matthews, or most importantly, three-year starting quarterback Mike Hartline. Never mind that an established, top-25-type of program would suffer a downturn after losing such talent. With UK in the infant stages of attempting to be consistently competitive in the SEC, losing so many outstanding offensive players surely would result in a less-than-stellar season. But that was not the prevailing mindset among Big Blue backers as the season got under way.
As a means of comparison, let's quickly take a look at Auburn, the 2011 National Champion. Auburn is an established SEC and national power with an incredibly rich recruiting base and tradition. But, they lost quite a bit of talent off of last year's squad, most notably, Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton, and defensive tackle extraordinaire Nick Fairley. And what happened this year down on The Plains? Well, they are not nearly as good as they were last year, that's what happened. Still a top-25-to-30 team? Yes, but significantly less talented than last season, and with a significantly less sparkling record (7-5, 4-4) than last season's 13-0. Did Gus Malzahn, Auburn's boy wonder offensive coordinator, suddenly forget how to coach? Did Gene Chizik, only one year ago praised as the next great coaching mind to enter the SEC, suddenly lose his facility to coach football? No, they just don't have the (experienced) horses to replenish the Tiger offense, and the defense is filled with youth.
The same is true, only to a greater degree, at Kentucky. The 'Cats lost, and lost a lot via early entry and graduation. But UK doesn't replace five-star players with five-star players, nary missing a beat, rather, the 'Cats replace three-star players with three-star players, many of whom need the experience and seasoning only time can give them in order to compete at such a high level (a righteous notion pilfered from one Glenn Logan).
But this is not the time to look back on a disappointing season, debating what should have been. Now is the time to celebrate a team which did not give up on the season, as so many fans did (including me). Now is the time to celebrate and thank the men in black for ending a terribly long, depressing losing streak to a program so often the picture of how not to conduct business (not that UK has been perfect through the years).
So a special thanks to Matt Roark for his selfless, body-beating, turnover-less play in Kentucky's win, a win resulting in legendary status being bestowed upon the once butter-fingered receiver; a thanks to CoShik Williams for scoring UK's only touchdown of the game, and for running hard all day; a thanks to Danny Trevathan for being the spiritual leader of a team whose spirit never broke; a thanks to an offense who did just enough; a thanks to the defense for playing their best game of the season, when UK needed it the most; and finally, a thanks to Joker Phillips and staff for, out of pure necessity, miraculously transforming their team from a pro-style squad, into an option-type team, all in a matter of five days.
This win was for all the Wildcats, who between 1984 and today, for whatever reason, failed to end the streak regardless of their individual heroic efforts. This win is for Tim Couch, Craig Yeast, Wesley Woodyard, Marty Moore, Dusty Bonner, Tim Masthay, Glenn Pakulak, Andre' Woodson, Keenan Burton, Dicky Lyons Jr., Anthony White, Jared Lorenzon, J.T. Haskins, Braxton Kelly, Artose Pinner, Derek Abney, Marcus McClinton, Trevard Lindley, Pookie Jones, Rafael Little, Alonzo Browning, James Whalen, Corey Peters, Micah Johnson, Jacob Tamme, Alonzo Browning, Glenn Holt, and Stevie Johnson, along with so many other Wildcats.
The irony of the victory is delicious. Like sugar-coated ice cream on Christmas morning. The streak is dead, at long last, the streak is dead.
Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!