For a series between the Kentucky Wildcats and Tennessee Volunteers that had not been relatively close in the Mark Stoops era, Saturday night provided Wildcat fans with an absolute thriller. Kentucky outlasted Tennessee, 29-26, in what was one of the uglier games of the season.
Kentucky's Senior Quarterback Stephen Johnson momentarily left the game with a shoulder injury and after returning was wobbly (at best) in the pocket. However, Johnson moved the ball down the field on the game-winning drive to put the Cats in position to win.
With 33 seconds left, Johnson rushed for 11 yards to leap up and into the end zone to give the Cats the lead, 27-26. Kentucky then ran it's most unique trick play of the season to succeed on the two-point conversion and extend their lead to 3 at 29-26. It was Kentucky's only score of the second half after scoring three Benny Snell rushing touchdowns in the first half.
Tennessee had their chance, however, to spoil the evening for Kentucky fans. With two seconds left, Vols QB Jarrett Guarantano heaved the ball to a few yards short of the end zone to come up just shy of pulling off the shocking upset.
The ugly part of this win was Kentucky's ball security. The Wildcats had four fumbles (including one on their first play from scrimmage) that allowed the Volunteers to score nine points. However, one of the bright spots (at least for Kentucky, not so much for Tennessee) is that the Wildcats were able to hold the Volunteers to attempting six field goals when they reached the red zone.
Snell added 180 rush yards to his three scores, 80 more than his goal previously stated this week at practice. His production allowed the Wildcats to get back to smash-mouth football, as they rushed the ball 36 times (Snell with 27 carries) for 289 yards.
Johnson was efficient on the ground as well, rushing six times for 84 yards. In the air, however, Johnson wasn't himself. The senior completed just 6/15 passes for 46 yards with no TDs. His shoulder injury, though, likely played a part in that. Stoops clarified in his press conference that it's Johnson's non-throwing shoulder that was injured.
One issue with Kentucky was their rush defense. They allowed over 200 yards on the ground for the third straight week. Giving up 120 rushing yards to a backup running back wasn't ideal, either. Their pass rush, though, was magnificent as they registered seven sacks.
Overall, it was largely considered to be a successful night in the Bluegrass. Any win, no matter the ugliness, is a win. Kentucky moves to 6-2 on the season (3-2 in conference play) and is indeed bowl-eligible for the second straight season under head coach Mark Stoops (in his fourth season).
The Wildcats will prep for Ole Miss this week as they'll host the Rebels next Saturday at 4 P.M. EDT. The Rebels blew a 31-7 lead earlier today to lose to Arkansas 38-37. Ole Miss will enter Kroger Field 3-5 and 1-4 in conference play.
You can count on Kentucky focusing on ball security & tackling this week as areas they can improve on.
MARK STOOPS: I was joking here before our audio got turned on with some of the media that even they have to admit that that's a thing of beauty. And it is because how many times were we on the wrong end of that for 33, 34 years or however many years. There's been many times when we have played some good football and came up on the wrong end. We have done that here. And so it was really nice to be on the other end to just hang in there. But I have to give so much credit, number one, to our football team the way they hung in there in difficult, difficult times. Obviously, offensively with turnovers really put us behind the eight ball as far as plays, opportunities, chances for Tennessee, kept us on the field. They were having success in the first half running the ball and the defense just kept on hanging in there. So proud of our team to pull together. This is what we said on the last drive, just one drive, just put it together, run our offense, and put a drive together and they did that. And I have to credit Tennessee, there's no doubt in my mind, I knew what they would do, that's a prideful program with very good football players that have a lot of pride and they came in here and played exceptionally hard. They played a very good game and outplayed us in many ways, many times. I knew Butch (Jones) would have them ready and they played super hard for him and give them credit. But very proud of our players, our coaches, and it's a team victory right there. Every phase had to step up in certain moments and they did that tonight.
Q. Talk about your gutsy quarterback.
MARK STOOPS: Amazing, really. Just -- Stephen, there's not many players that probably would have came back and even played in that situation. He's absolutely tough as nails and we have so much respect and pride for him and our team does and he led us tonight and led us on that drive and like I said, I don't think many players would have played in that situation.
Q. Put together that drive and took that lead. Where was your mind when that last ball was in the air?
MARK STOOPS: Well, I was pissed off that we were in that situation on the fourth down. We should have been off the field. We got to have, we got to back up a little bit more and Jordan (Jones) just kind of floated on that drop. So we had to have better sense in that situation. And on the long one, it was hard for me to even see. I didn't -- I saw the ball going out after the throw. But, obviously, when I saw the end result, I was very, very pleased with that.
Q. When Stephen came back in the game, the very first play, he took off running it. Was that by design?
MARK STOOPS: No, it was a read. He pulled it. I think they felt like there was no way he would pull that ball right there and they squeezed very hard on the edge and that's a read play. You either give it to the running back or pull it and he made a good read and ran it.
Q. Do you think you kind of rediscovered that offensive identity that was so successful in the early part of the year?
MARK STOOPS: I did, because, look, we only ended up having 52 plays again, but we rushed for 289. That's hard to believe. Four possessions we take away by putting the ball on the ground. I don't exactly know what the drive chart looks like yet in the second half, but, obviously, the defense getting some stops, keeping us in there was huge. But, yeah, I think it was real important to get that identity. You heard me talk about it and I think our players really had a strong mindset that we were going to be efficient at running and throwing. And really throwing, we were off tonight for awhile. We did it by any means necessary, sometimes it's going to be offense, defense or special teams. Sometimes it will be running it or throwing it. But I think it's critically important for us to be able to run the ball. And I think you saw them, they were more efficient tonight because of their run success as well.
Q. That last drive, two three and outs, you guys threw it five times, ran it once. Did you say anything, did you have any say about the stick it in Benny's gut on that last drive?
MARK STOOPS: I didn't say a word. I didn't want to get in the way and handcuff them in any way or get them thinking about that. I was barely on the offensive headset tonight. I had a lot of confidence in them. And in between when we were struggling, I did say in between series, we talked about maybe we need to just get in 10 and open it up and throw it around, or run and throw. And I think we did try on that series and it didn't work. But on the last drive I just simply said just let's just be us. Put a drive together. We had some really great drives in the first half keeping them off balance and mixing in the run and the pass and we hit some big runs that kind of got it moving and started that drive.
Q. How big was it just to hold them to field goals after those fumbles?
MARK STOOPS: It was real big. It was big for our defense to step up and we got some huge stops and they missed one, which was big. But it really was a gutsy performance, because at one point, you know, they had so many plays in the first half, I think they ended up with almost 80 anyway. And I think they had 40 at half and I could tell that we were on there a lot. Like I talked about opportunities, drives, and they were moving it. But we settled in and started tackling and were more efficient in the second half defensively.
Q. What does it say about your kids, you guys lose the turnover battle four to nothing, but still come up with a win. Have you ever been a part of a team that lost it in that kind of a way and still won?
MARK STOOPS: No, I don't think so. I don't know. How many teams win in the SEC down four? Not very often.
Q. You talked so much about making plays. Talk about Tavin Richardson and those two plays he made.
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, just, I'll be honest with you. When I saw it live, I didn't know if he was in. I saw the replay and I mean unbelievable catch and it was obviously huge in that moment. That would have been what, third and 10 if I'm not mistaken if he doesn't convert that. So it was a big catch. And we were a bit off there for awhile in the second half, obviously. A few drops popped up today, but we made competitive plays and I'm proud of them when it counted.
Q. What would you think of 150 unsportsmanlike conduct penalties?
MARK STOOPS: I haven't seen anything like that either. We tried to tell them, I mean, it's about playing the game, between the white lines and I think the officials did a good job because once it started early, they were putting their thumb on it. So that's why it was called so close and I can't argue with that. It's a big rivalry game and we had, it got really chippy in the Florida game like that as well and they had to put their thumb on it. So I think they did a good job of, and our players, I got to coach that better, we got to be better and handle our emotions better. We talked about it the last time we were in this environment with Florida or other big games and just finding a way to win at the end and I'm proud of that, but we definitely got to get some of those penalties back.
Q. When your defense is on the field a lot it's hard to make the impact plays, but they had seven sacks, tackles for loss, what do you credit that to and how much did that impact the game?
MARK STOOPS: It did impact the game quite a bit and early you could tell even with some of the run game and some of what they went back to I figured that they would because they had good success with it a year ago and some of the things on the perimeter and getting us in space and making some of our big guys, the gaps were very big and they were getting on the edges and doing some things, that was hurting us. Coach House did a really nice job making some adjustments, getting some things fixed at half and we started playing cleaner and a little more aggressive in certain cases and mixing it up on them and I think that the guys played harder and fed off the big plays as well.
Q. You got some seasons where you're going down to the wire looking for that sixth win, is there an element of maybe taking pressure off the guys when they got four to go and you're already there, you're at the bowl?
MARK STOOPS: You know, I heard a couple players as we were just celebrating talking in there talking about, hey, we're going bowling, and we didn't even really address it because we felt hopefully we have moved beyond that and we don't take anything for granted but we know we need to win six plus and I don't know, to be honest with you I think last year when we got the sixth win and we went and played on the road and the last game I think it freed us up a bit, so I hope we want more than that, we want to take them all one game at a time but I hope our mindset stay that is we want to go get the next one and we'll worry about the one after that after next week.
Q. Now just the fact that now your program has a foundation of two bowl games in a row, after where you started, just talk about what that means to you.
MARK STOOPS: It means an awful lot. Let's not kid ourselves, we know -- just take a look around, look at our league and look at the pressure that coaches are under and teams and the players feel that and it means a lot. Our players have, we haven't been perfect in any way, coaching or playing, but they haven't flinched and they stay united and it's a very good group and we have got a long way to go. We made a lot of mistakes and all that, but they're a fun group to coach and I think it does mean a lot, especially this weekend, Coach Brooks back here and all the bowl teams and the bowl victors and coach told me, he's like, get this one. He said, I was never able to get Tennessee and it was important for him for us to get that and for to win and for all the ex-players that are here and build our tradition and it's important to me and these players, we're very prideful when they came back and Coach Brooks talked to the team and Randall Cobb came and talked to the team and seeing Wesley (Woodyard) here and I saw Avery (Williamson) earlier today and just all the players that are back, it means a lot and we want to keep on winning and we do it for them as much as the fans and everybody else in the program.
Q. After your press conference on the field, you headed back the other way going towards Tennessee’s locker room …
MARK STOOPS: I was just looking for one of the guys on their staff that I had worked with. He was waiting for me, but they had to get in, so I just wanted to say hello to him.
Q. Jordan had 13 tackles, but there was a period there in the first half when he kind of went off and got away from the defense, was he just in there resting and meditating?
MARK STOOPS: No, they were checking him out.
Q. Some kind of injury?
MARK STOOPS: Well, I mean, they were checking him out, so I mean, yeah, yeah, they were, so I don't know, I really get so caught up in the coaching the game when he's out, they're out, when they're in, they're in. You can tell there's a bunch of guys shuffled in and out of there today and getting banged up. But he came back and I just saw him show up back out there and I liked it.
Q. You mentioned Coach Brooks never was able to beat Tennessee, there have been a lot of good Kentucky coaches who haven't done it. What does this mean to you personally?
MARK STOOPS: It means a lot to me personally because I care about our fan base and what they're feeling and some of their frustration over the years and so it is important, I never denied that. I care and I want to win and I want people to be proud of what we're doing and proud of the product that's on the field and there's been a lot of frustration, a lot of years there that we weren't able to get those guys, so it's important to us.
Q. Did you know a performance like this was coming from Benny at some point this year?
MARK STOOPS: I did, I did. I felt like it's a group effort and I went in and yeah, we went in and had a good meeting and I went in individually with the offensive line meeting room and told them that we need to put it all together, along with the backs and the thing is, is we have to have an identity to do that and it starts with the offensive line and most of the time the pulse of your football team a lot of times comes from the offensive line and their mentality and the way they play and they stepped up.
Q. The play that sticks out the most to me in this ball game was the touchdown Stephen Johnson had at the very end of the ball game. It's probably the gutsiest play I've ever seen a Kentucky quarterback ever have and he might go down in history as the gutsiest quarterback in Kentucky history. Did you say anything to him after that play or in the locker room after the game about that?
MARK STOOPS: We were just busy with the group, but just gave him a hug and you admire his effort, you really do. I think we all do. Like I said, I don't know how many people would have played through that, let alone go in and do what he did and pull the ball and run it and running and diving and doing whatever he has to do, I can't say enough about him and his determination and what he does for us.
Q. Does the injury have any lingering affect?
MARK STOOPS: It could, it could. It's an injury that's painful that players -- luckily it's on his non-throwing shoulder, so but it's not anything that he shouldn't be out therefore this week.