Roughly eight weeks ago, following a gut-wrenching loss to Southern Mississippi, Mark Stoops declared to both the media and an upset fan base that these Wildcats would improve. It was a tough sell to make, given that the home opener was as depressing as they come, with fans witnessing the Wildcats give up not only 34 unanswered points, but also their dreams of a bowl berth.
Or so we thought.
This past weekend, Kentucky brought truth to the words Mark Stoops uttered from the dais back on September 3rd, reinvigorating a fan base so hungry for success, a program so starved of victories, and a coaching staff so desperate for validation.
For a team that has, at times, seemed too eager to embody the oft-disappointing nature of Kentucky football, last Saturday’s game felt markedly different—exceptionally so. It was a game that—until as recently as last season—Kentucky would have found a way to lose. Granted, they almost did do exactly that, but they did something else that was incredibly uncharacteristic for Kentucky teams in the last decade: recover and respond.
Normally, when presented with the adversity that Kentucky faced all throughout last week’s matchup with Mississippi State, most would have expected the Wildcats to fold, accepting the loss and all it entails. Nothing comes to mind more than Stephen Johnson’s red zone fumble in the fourth quarter. Based on previous performances, many Kentucky fans would not have been blamed for thinking that Kentucky would not be able to recover from such a profound error. Despite the slew of doubt, Kentucky proved everyone wrong.
They rose up. They fought back. They recovered.
Perhaps most impressive, however, was the performance on that decisive final drive. Last year, Kentucky had opportunities to win on a final drive against Auburn, Florida, and Vanderbilt—a victory in any one of those would have sent the Wildcats to a bowl game. In each of those games, Kentucky lost, whether it was on an interception against the Gators or due to a sack on fourth down against the Tigers and Commodores. Kentucky was never able to pull it off.
As soon as Mississippi State went up by a single point with hardly a minute left in the game, the conventional hand-wringing commenced all across the Commonwealth. There was little faith that Kentucky had it in them to drive down the field and score. Such fears were only exacerbated as scenes of Dorian Baker bobbling the game-winning touchdown pass were broadcast into the homes of every Kentucky fan, every Starkville viewer, and every casual fan flipping the channel because they glanced over a sardonic tweet that spoke of how Kentucky might just lose another football game in grueling fashion. They all anticipated the inevitable.
Each aforementioned demographic was instead met with the sight of a football hurtling toward the uprights from 153 feet away until it came to its resting point, nestled snug in the back of the net. In one play—one kick—the entire tenor of this season was changed. The promise of success was once again within reach.
Now, we may exalt last week’s performance as much as we like, but without a win this weekend against Missouri, it will have meant nothing more than a prolongation of the inevitable—a setup for the worst, most agonizing letdown possible.
If anything, last Saturday proved that Kentucky has the strength and will to win buried deep within themselves. They played with incredible determination and, perhaps most importantly, they had fun doing it.
I am not sure I have seen a happier, more emotional locker room at Commonwealth Stadium in the Mark Stoops era. The team belted out the school’s fight song with gusto even as its leaders were met with teary-eyed exultation. An onlooker cannot help but share in that jubilation and be proud of what this team accomplished.
Still, seeing how the ink that this story is being written in is still fresh, the narrative surrounding the win over Mississippi State is still subject to change. October 22nd could serve as a seminal moment in the history of this program. That optimistic outlook will only remain robust, however, if Kentucky can manage to unearth two more wins on its schedule and continue to do all of the good things that Coach Stoops promised all those weeks ago.
Quote courtesy of the Lexington Herald-Leader’s Jen Smith