As a long suffering fan who began following UK football seriously during the Blanton Collier years, I have suffered through some miserable seasons and even more miserable exhibitions of football. I remained a faithful Cat fan through some terrible events and seasons, until the 2011 season when Kentucky began to lose me as a fan. By the end of the 40-0 loss to Vanderbilt, I was finally over UK football.
I had already given up my season tickets and also my basketball season tickets when I moved to Florida in 2000, but I remained faithful until the 2011 and 2012 seasons. I watched every game on TV and if TV wasn't available, I listened to Tom Leach call the games. The very beginning of the end for me actually came in the bowl loss to Pitt, a team with no head coach. At the time, I supported coach Phillips' decision to suspend Mike Hartline because I believe a coach must maintain team discipline. Had Hartline played, we may have won that one.
My beef with Kentucky football stemmed from a complete lack of support from the UK Athletics Association (UKAA) and the University, itself. For years, the UKAA was concerned only with basketball. There is no dispute about that. The UKAA was always loaded with former basketball players and fans who were not in favor with the concept that the University of Kentucky could have anything other than a great basketball program. The University and the UKAA made the decision, if you'll recall, to punish the football program after the basketball program was put on NCAA probation following the betting scandal in New York. The University imposed penalty was no more than five scholarships for each program for out of state players.
This was not a problem for Adolph Rupp's basketball program since Kentucky was produced top notch basketball players. It was, however, a big problem for Paul "Bear" Bryant's football program because many of his football team came from places like Pennsylvania. I have done a lot of research on this and found that when Bryant left for Texas A&M, those recruiting restrictions were lifted. After studying the football rosters during the Blanton Collier regime and the Charlie Bradshaw tenure, you can clearly see those restrictions were no longer in place.
Kentucky was forced into building Commonwealth Stadium because the SEC teams were beginning to become reluctant to come to Lexington. Bryant was quoted as saying that he would not return to Lexington with his Alabama team until Kentucky replaced or improved their stadium. So, it wasn't because Kentucky wanted to upgrade their football program, it was because the University was forced to do something about its stadium.
When the University made the decision to disband the UKAA, I was of the opinion that the school wanted control of the UKAA's $850 million endowment. I was very distrustful of President Eli Capilouto and the UK Board of Trustees and Mitch Barnhart. When UK turned down Barnhart's $350 million deal with IMG which included Commonwealth renovations, I was convinced that UK had no intention of ever supporting the football program. By then, I had refused to donate to the University.
Oddly enough, I saw the beginnings of change when Calipari's Wildcats won the national championship. I think Eli Capilouto became enlightened about what a top notch athletic program could do for the University in terms of donations and financial support. He was clearly enjoying himself as he was with Calipari when the championship trophy was presented. It is just my opinion, but I believe be began to listen to Mitch Barnhart from that point. Barnhart's job was to build an entire athletic program and he was forced to use football money to do it. He had done a credible job of building a total program while the football program suffered and he took the heat for the University's failure. And, when he supported a failing Joker Phillips, he lost a lot of credibility. Had the fan base not rebelled, things would not have changed. That's my opinion, anyway. One thing I know from past experience with UK football is that fans usually are the impetus for change and the fans spoke with their fannies and their money. Change had to come.
Enter Mark Stoops. This has already become Kentucky's best hire since Bryant was brought in from Maryland. We've had some good coaches in the past: Blanton Collier, Fran Curci, Jerry Claiborne, Hal Mumme and Rich Brooks. All, however, were hampered either by the UKAA or the University. Curci and Mumme were the cause of their own downfall. All, however, did not receive the support that they needed to be successful. I will also go as far as saying that Charlie Bradshaw, John Ray, Bill Curry and Joker Phillips never received the kind of support needed for winning football. Even Howard Schnellenberger is on record about UK's failure to support its football program.
Hiring Stoops signaled the change. He had a plan and made it very clearly known that his plan required much needed changes from the University of Kentucky. He was able to convince both Mitch Barnhart (who probably didn't need much convincing) and Eli Capilouto. The fact that Stoops has been able to live up to his vision very early proves that the University's new-found support has already been justified. Saturday night simply proved it.
Before getting into why Saturday night was a signature win, I want to go back to our win in 2010. We were losing that game until Marcus Lattimore went down and Steve Spurrier had no replacement. Had he been able to play in the second half, South Carolina might have won that came. As it turned out, Kentucky won the game on a pass from Mike Hartline to a wide-open Randle Cobb and sealed it with an interception in the end zone.
This time around, however, Kentucky won after coming from behind in the first half to tie the game and then came back again in the fourth quarter to tie again. Then, the football gods smiled upon the Cats when Mike Douglas tipped that pass and Bud Dupree simply ran into the free ball and on into the end zone. The game was still in doubt until that final interception to stop the Gamecock drive.
There were plenty of heroes in this game. Of course, Jo Jo Kemp took control of the offense running out of the Wildcat. That, however, was set up by the Patrick Towles pass to a wide-open Ryan Timmons from "The Trick" play. That forced Carolina to react to the passing "sweep" in the Wildcat from there on out. What I found particularly inspirational, however, was Patrick Towles showing up on TV leading the downfield blocking for Kemp. It has been years since I've seen a blocking quarterback.
While South Carolina couldn't stop Kemp, Kentucky had its own problems stopping Davis. Kentucky's defense was just as fooled by the Gamecock's zone read as Carolina's defense was stumped by the false sweeps out of the Wildcat. One thing that was very noticeable to me was how Matt Elam was able to help stop the Carolina ground game with the exception of one play where he took the bait and headed in the wrong direction as Davis ran to the opposite side of the blocking. Elam forced the Carolina O-line to double team. Had he gone straight instead of following the blocking, he may have disrupted that particular play that sticks in my mind. In spite of that, Elam had his best game of the year and he's showing improvement with each game.
Kentucky also found its replacement for Avery Williamson in Josh Forrest. With 15 tackles for the evening and playing all over the field, we no longer have to worry about the middle linebacker spot and now only have to worry about depth at the position. I am willing to bet that someone will step up.
This defense is better than they look. They currently rank #23 in Pass Defense, 74th in Rushing Defense, and 45th in Total Defense. They are tied for 4th in Interceptions and tied for 13th in forced turnovers. While many are concerned about our rushing defense, one should remember how much things have improved after 2012 and 2013. Our defense is only going to get better.
Offensively, I was most impressed at how fast Towles was able to get rid of the ball and the speed of our receivers. There were passes thrown that had to have accuracy that we've not had in a long time. Patty Ice is our guy and we've not had anyone comparable since Woodson and Hartline. I don't think I have to mention Kemp anymore than I have, but Braylon Heard was terrific until he cramped up. Horton made his mark as well. The big kudos, however, need to go to our O-line. Those guys played their butts off. They opened holes as well as they pass blocked. There was great effort that we've not seen in a while.
This win will reap its rewards. Beating Steve Spurrier is an accomplishment by itself. The Hall of Fame coach and former Heisman Trophy quarterback is a proven offensive genius. For me, it is an honor to beat him. Many UK fans have never liked him because he always dissed Kentucky. I had no problem with that because I agreed with him. It was Kentucky's responsibility to stop his offense, and not his responsibility to tone it down or go easy on the Cats. This time around, he gave Kentucky the respect they have earned...before and after the game. He made no excuses. You have to respect that.
Signature win? You betcha. Kentucky is expected to beat Louisiana-Monroe Saturday and that will put the Cats at 5-1 for the first half of the season. Can Kentucky win one of the last six? I believe we can and I believe we will be competitive in all six games, even the road games at LSU, Missouri, Tennessee and Louisville. Right now, the only game I don't think we can win is against Mississippi State at home. The Bulldogs may be the only team we play who haven't shown any weaknesses. Of the road games, Missouri may be the toughest. LSU is rebuilding. Tennessee is still building. The jury's out on Louisville since they've not had an easy time so far after a loss to Virginia and a tough game against Wake Forest.
I've not mentioned Georgia. Stopping their offense may be difficult, but I'm not so sure about the Bulldog defense, considering they allowed the Vanderbilt offense to score in Athens. Also considering that South Carolina beat them and this will be an away game for them, this could be a very interesting game.