The Kentucky Wildcats under Coach Mark Stoops are clearly a team on the rise in the SEC and the nation. This can no longer be disputed; however, any program that is on the rise has a game that becomes a defining moment. As Kevin Costner's character Roy McAvoy in Tin Cup would say;
"When a defining moment comes along you define the moment or the moment defines you."
For the Kentucky football team, and JoJo Kemp, this happened last night; they both defined the moment. Kentucky has been resigned as a bottom dweller, and is becoming a destination program for recruits.
UK pulled out all the stops last night for this game,
- They held a wildly successful blackout
- They held the biggest Catwalk - maybe ever
- They brought in over 60,000 members of the Big Blue Nation,
- They had UK legends Randall Cobb, Keenan Burton, Art Still, and Jared Lorenzen on the field to start the fourth quarter.
- They had one of the biggest recruiting visits to ever grace Commonwealth Stadium
- They pulled off a tremendous uniform look that was a hit with the players and recruits
All the hype, energy, and confidence coming into the game was completely decimated when Steve Spurrier won the toss, took the ball, and proceeded to march 19 plays (17 of which were runs) to the end zone. By the time the score had reached 14-0, it was much more than a deficit. The game seemed over before it had even happened and a sense of déjà vu was in the building.
What would transpire over the final 13 minutes of the second quarter was the beginning of the title of this article. The ‘Cats would outscore the Gamecocks 17-3 to go into the locker room 17-17. You could sense the weight of the moment much like a heavyweight fight where both fighters had given their best shots to the other and both were still standing.
Kentucky would strike first and seemed to be gaining control of the game as they lead 24-17 but as any UK fan knows, Spurrier is always in the game. He would orchestrate a counterpunch that would see South Carolina score 21 unanswered points to lead 38-24. I am confident that even the bluest tinted members of BBN did not expect UK to rise from the ashes of this one.
There was 11:45 showing on the clock when Kentucky got the ball facing a 38-24 deficit. Seven plays and 47 yards later Kentucky hit pay dirt via the Wildcat formation with Kemp plunging in from the one-yard line to keep hope alive. It was also foreshadowing for what was to come.
In what was a reversal of fortune, the 'Cats saw themselves in a position to get the ball back but they were facing a third down and three. Common sense said give the ball to the guy (Mike Davis) who was averaging nearly EIGHT yards per carry on the night. However, inexplicably Spurrier dialed up a pass play and after a defensive stop, a renewed sense of confidence filled the air.
What would transpire next was as satisfying a win us UK football fans have seen. Coach Mark Stoops put JoJo Kemp in the Wildcat formation, basically announcing to the world what was coming, and Kemp proceeded to run for 11, 9, and 6 yards. Kemp then tapped his helmet asking for a breather, Stoops said no... Kemp proceeded to take the next snap and labor his way 43 yards to the South Carolina six-yard line before collapsing under his own weight from exhaustion.
I cannot imagine Commonwealth Stadium ever being louder than in that moment. Kemp would get a much needed break for an entire one play before coming back in underneath chants of "JO JO", to finish off the job five yards later. Much like Matt Roark versus Tennessee, an unexpected legend was born.
Kentucky would then turn to the defense to step up and be a hero and it would come in the form of a batted pass that Alvin Dupree snatched out of the air and galloped into the end zone to finish off the improbable comeback and send the Commonwealth into a frenzy. Veteran Mike Douglas got the tip and veteran Alvin Dupree scored the go ahead touchdown.
The reason I feel so strongly about last night's game as being the game changer is because of all the factors involved. The ‘Cats have had huge wins before that you could point to and without taking into account the external factors, you could say this is no different than beating South Carolina two years ago. You could say what about in 2007 when we beat top 10 Louisville, #1, and eventual champion LSU. How about that famous UT game where Matt Roark lead us to victory? Other coaches have had big wins for UK in the past and given us all the warm and fuzzies only to disappoint eventually. Why did that not vault UK into another level?
So why is this different? Buy-In.
Beyond the obvious energy, momentum, and recruiting efforts that Coach Stoops has generated, the program now has unanimous buy-in. The administration is behind the program advancing to that next level (unlike under Coach Brooks). The fans are clearly bought-in to the process and the staff. The players are all on-board and recruits are starting to see this as a destination program.
There was a time when the recruiting room for Kentucky football was the corner of the indoor track with a pull-down screen for video and folding chairs. Those days of the football program playing second fiddler are over. Also over are the days of Kentucky being the butt of a joke and an occasional spoiler of other teams seasons. Kentucky is now a major player in the SEC in every way and the sky is the limit as long as Mark Stoops and his staff are here. Enjoy the ride BBN, because what we are witnessing is known in as a story arc.
To quote Coach Stoops: "We're just getting started, bro."