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The 10 best home wins of Kentucky Football’s past decade

Kroger Field has rarely roared louder than 2010-2019.

Mississippi State at Kentucky Charles Bertram/Lexington Herald-Leader/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

For several decades, Kentucky Wildcats football sold a dismal number of season tickets and filled most of its seats with fans of the road team. The games with roaring sellout crowds and prime-time TV coverage are few and far between.

This decade, more often than not, fans were treated to something special when they came to Kroger Field, especially after 2016.

While most of Kentucky’s recent success has come away from home, such as the streak-busting win in The Swamp two years ago, 2016’s Austin MacGinnis win over Lamar Jackson’s Louisville Cardinals, and the past two seasons’ bowl victories, Kroger field has seen history made time and time again.

I’ve made these selections in the order I have based mostly on imagining the experience for a fan actually witnessing the game. The atmosphere was far more lively and the scoring much more exciting in the 2017 Tennessee win than in the 2011 one, even though the latter was the year the 26-year losing streak ended. That’s also why a ho-hum win over Vanderbilt lands at number 10, since the crowd was rocking for a top-25 Kentucky team on homecoming night: a far different scene than in most home games against the Commodores.

So with that, here are the ten best home victories for the Kentucky Wildcats in the past decade:

10: UK edges Vandy ugly on 2018 homecoming

Two weeks earlier, the Wildcats walked into Texas A&M’s College Station with a record shinier than a brand new Hummer: 5-0 overall and 3-0 in the SEC, most notably the Streak-ending win over Florida. The Aggies didn’t hire Jimbo Fisher to lose at home to teams not named Alabama or Clemson, but Kentucky gave the Aggies everything they could handle, forcing overtime until a missed field goal and a short touchdown gave the escape to the home team. A small dent on the Hummer, but nothing to be ashamed of. A statement win over Vanderbilt on homecoming night would put them right back on track.

Except Vandy had other ideas. Striking early in the first quarter to make it 7-0, the Commodores made life hard for the ‘Cats all the way until the 4th quarter, when the forever famous Benny Snell Jr. charged into the end zone to break a long 7-7 standstill. Vandy didn’t have an answer, and the Wildcats triumphed 14-7. The Hummer had almost hit a tree, but was still a golden, AP Top 25-worthy 6-1.

9: 2017 shootout with Mizzou

Rarely these days does Kentucky heap piles of points upon any team, much less an SEC team. On this autumn night in 2017, Stephen Johnson, Benny Snell, and Austin MacGinnis piled a 40-burger on the visiting Missouri Tigers in front of a rocking crowd that wanted to see their Wildcats improve to 5-1.

They got their wish, but couldn’t sit back until the final horn in a back-and-forth shootout. UK raced out to a 13-0 lead, but only led 20-14 going into halftime. The margin was cut again as Mizzou’s Tucker McCann chipped in a 27-yard field goal early in the 3rd quarter, but Benny Snell pushed the lead back to 10 with a TD. Mizzou didn’t go away, though, and tied the game up 27-27 going into the fourth quarter. The crowd began to grow nervous, but seconds later Stephen Johnson threw a perfect pass to Garrett “Juice” Johnson for a 64-yard score. Keeping in tune with how the rest of the night was going, Mizzou promptly scored a touchdown of their own to tie it up at 34 moments after that. In the end, it came down to an Austin MacGinnis kick as the ‘Cats used his 3rd and 4th field goals of the night to get to 5-1 overall and 2-1 in the SEC.

For the fans, it was a sweet victory packed with adrenaline rushes at every turn under the bright lights of Kroger Field.

8: Lynn Bowden saves the season against Arkansas

Kentucky fans in 2019 never knew how much they relied on quarterback Terry Wilson until he was out for the year after a horrific Week 2 leg injury. Three games later, all losses, the Wildcats found their fourth straight bowl trip in jeopardy. At 2-3 and facing Arkansas in Lexington, the pressure was on to right the ship before all was lost. In 2019, if you couldn’t beat Arkansas, you couldn’t beat anybody. The Razorbacks had lost their last baker’s dozen of SEC games and were desperately looking for a victim to replace them as the league laughingstock. As fans were filing into their seats minutes before kickoff, hoping Wilson’s replacement, Sawyer Smith, was healthy again after mediocre showings in the last two games, thrilling news came over the loudspeaker‒playing quarterback for the Kentucky Wildcats: Lynn Bowden Jr.

For most teams who put in a wide receiver at quarterback, it doesn’t go very well. That is why they have quarterbacks in the first place. Scoring drops off dramatically and the coaches just hope the defense can gut out a field goal kicking contest. It always shook the game up, however, because it seldom happens anywhere, much less in the SEC.

And most teams don’t know what it’s like to face Lynn Bowden.

The game started off exactly how the fans didn’t want it to. Arkansas easily built a 13-0 lead and Kentucky squandered chances to score until at last finding pylon just before halftime to make it 13-7. Playing catch-up is always uncomfortable, but especially when playing a beatable team in a game you have to win. Without a double-digit lead, a fan just can’t enjoy those hot dogs and nachos until the final horn.

But Kentucky wasn’t done. Kicking a field goal and scoring a touchdown with a Lynn Bowden pass (rare from most WRs turned QBs), they entered the 4th quarter up 17-13. Arkansas answered with a score of their own, but those points would be their last. Riding on the legs of their best playmaker, Kentucky earned another touchdown with a big run from Lynn Bowden.

Arkansas drove downfield in the final minutes, reaching the Kentucky red zone and filling Kentucky fans with painful memories of blown leads of yore, but that night wouldn’t add to the list. A crucial 3rd down sack and an incomplete pass put the ball back in Kentucky’s hands to run the clock out.

Fans left Kroger Field that night relieved and giddy. After three straight losses, each by more points than the last, the Cats were winning again. This new Lynn Bowden thing seemed to work. They had no idea how much more he would deliver by the year’s end, all because of an escape from lowly Arkansas.

7: Kentucky flashes new AP ranking, rocks Gamecocks on quest for history

Every team loves winning their first game. 1-0 is perfection, even if only for seven more days. Every team also loves making it 2-0, then adding a third helping and gathering Top 25 votes

As long as the car isn’t scratched.

Most years for Kentucky, Florida swiftly shoves the car into the loss-column ditch of mediocrity. In 2018, Big Blue Nation thought they were dreaming. After ending the 31-year losing streak to a very good Gators team and blowing out a top-15 Mississippi State team, the Wildcats were a spotless 4-0 going into a prime-time home game with South Carolina. Even better, they had a #17 AP ranking, putting them with very good company.

Kroger Field sold out, ready to rock and roll to 5-0 overall and 3-0 in the SEC. Articles abounded with statements like, “The last time Kentucky reached 5-0 was so long ago that doing it now would be really, really awesome.” First, of course, they had to win.

Ready to forage into more uncharted territory, the Wildcats raced out to a 24-3 halftime lead with the raucous crowd soaking it all up. Mistakes and a South Carolina touchdown made things tighter near the end, but capitalizing off turnovers helped the ‘Cats seal the win and reach 5-0 going into a road game with Texas A&M.

For the fans, every Kentucky win made the next mean more.

That’s the way of the SEC.

6: MacGinnis saves Stoops, gets Kentucky closer to bowl with walk-off FG

If Mark Stoops stays at Kentucky for a long time, he’s going to go down as the greatest coach in school history. Year after year, he’s lifted the Wildcats to new heights, busting curses, streaks, and plain old bad luck all along the way.

In 2016, however, people were beginning to run out of patience. Four straight losing seasons to begin the job were understandable given what he had inherited and how long it takes to rebuild a broken team. A fifth straight might’ve pushed it too much, though, and without Mark Stoops, the past four dream seasons likely would’ve never happened. Fortunately, a key win against Mississippi State prevented such perils, all thanks to the unstoppable kicking leg of Austin MacGinnis.

Sitting at 3-3 with a tough schedule looming ahead, this game against the mediocre Bulldogs was a must-win if the ‘Cats wanted to go bowling. Thus the halftime score of 14-6, with the Bulldogs leading, casted a grim shadow over this team’s future. But the scoring dearth didn’t last much longer, as 21 third quarter points put the ‘Cats up 27-24 going into the final 15 minutes. A pick-six extended the lead to 10, but State came back with a scoop-and-score of their own to cut it to three again.

After MacGinnis nailed his third field goal of the night to make it 37-31, the typical Kentucky football ending began playing itself out: blow a lead in the final minutes and lose in heartbreaking fashion. The Bulldogs punched into the pylon with a minute left for a one point lead, and fans began giving up hope on a return to bowl mania. But MacGinnis wasn’t ready to quit, nailing a 51-yard field goal as time expired to seal the win.

Most years you are more likely to win the lottery than see Kentucky football pull off a miracle play to win a game, but starting with this October night in 2016, the culture began to change. Mark Stoops has built the ‘Cats into winners that never back down, bend but don’t break.

It all started with a 51-yard field goal.

5: Kentucky defeats Tennessee for first time in 26 years

It was a typical season in the Commonwealth for the Kentucky Wildcats, as their football team was 4-7, unable to reach a bowl, and playing the season finale at home against Tennessee. The tickets were cheap, but few bothered to go. The script was the same for the last 26 years: lose by much or little to Tennessee, whether good or bad. Those fence boards in the backyard needed repainting anyway, and three hours of an open Saturday were oft better used elsewhere than at Commonwealth Stadium against the Volunteers.

But college football is still college football, and somehow Kentucky found themselves up 10-0 in the 4th quarter while playing a wide receiver at quarterback. Maybe they should do this more often, as 2019 showed. Tennessee, of course, got back in it with a touchdown of their own, and many fans likely decided it was time to finish off the nachos and beat the downtown traffic. But after trading several punts UK snagged an interception with just a minute and a half on the clock. Taking a knee on three plays, somehow Kentucky finished the Vols off. Fans stormed the field like they’d beaten Alabama. For the first time in 26 years, the ‘Cats had defeated Tennessee and no one had seen it coming.

No bowl game? Lousy season? Dismal recruiting class? Mediocre Vols team? Didn’t matter. It was time to celebrate. If you asked a fan their first thought after the win, I bet it likely was “Now about Florida…”

4: Governor’s Cup stays home, ‘Cats romp Cards in the rain

It had been a good season. Expectations were high after a historic 10-3 dream season that included the streak-ending win at Florida and a Citrus Bowl victory over Big Ten superpower Penn State, but graduations and injuries had reduced the team’s firepower by quite a bit, almost sending the hype bandwagon over a cliff with a 3-game losing streak.

Insert Lynn Bowden. Bandwagon back on the tracks.

Stringing together three SEC victories and an FCS cupcake guarantee, the Wildcats turned their season back around to their favorite city: bowl eligibility. Population: not too many. Now, at 6-5, they faced their in-state rival on a rainy Saturday at Kroger Field. Most teams don’t like playing in frigid November rain for three-and-a-half hours, unless they are the Kentucky Wildcats. While rain hurts the offenses of most football squads due to trickier passing games, Kentucky thrived by keeping their feet on the ground, giving them an advantage over pass-happy teams when the dark clouds gathered. Just ask that year’s Missouri team after their trip to the Commonwealth.

Louisville was 7-4, not great but definitely tough to beat when you are facing them with a wide receiver at quarterback. Unless that quarterback is named Lynn Bowden Jr. Holding a slim 17-13 lead at halftime, Lynn Bowden broke loose for a 60-yard touchdown run, his second of the day, as fans were still returning to their seats with halftime snacks. Then later in the quarter, he slipped away for another one. Then Chris Rodriguez scored one. Then Bowden added another. What was missing? The other team. While Kentucky cruised to 45 easy points on just 4 passing yards, the latter 517 coming exclusively off rushing, Louisville came up with a paltry 13 points while punting six times and turning it over three times. Redbirds fans filed out for their cars with seven minutes left in the game. Kentucky didn’t just defend the Governor’s Cup, it completely ran away with it.

Will Kentucky one day exert the same kind of dominance against Tennessee or Florida? Don’t bet against it.

3: The joyride continues: ‘Cats romp #14 Bulldogs in historic 2018

Two weeks earlier, Kentucky defeated Florida for the first time in 31 years. 31 seasons, 31 losses to Florida until one night in the Swamp when they got a lead and didn’t blow it. On September 22, they welcomed #14 Mississippi State into Kroger Field for a prime-time matchup while flashing an unblemished 3-0 record. A win would catapult them into the AP Top 25 as well, and put them into a great position to reach 5-0 with a winnable upcoming home game with South Carolina. First, however, they had to squeeze by the Bulldogs.

Except they didn’t just squeeze by. They outperformed the Top 15 powerhouse in every way, all thanks to a rock-solid defense and a running back named Benny Snell Jr.

Just before halftime Snell scored his first touchdown to make it 7-7, then midway through the third quarter scored another to give the ‘Cats a 14-7 lead going into the final period. Anxious onlookers kept waiting for State to answer, but it never happened. With eight to go Snell scored again, bloating the lead to 14. Four minutes later he finished the Bulldogs off, scoring his fourth touchdown to seal the 28-7 win. Once the final horn sounded, fans stormed the field. Dominating defense and Snell’s feet led the ‘Cats to a statement win that proved their relevance to the rest of the conference.

2: Over the (Rocky) Top: Stephen Johnson beats Tennessee

In 2017, after starting out 3-0 Kentucky cooled off a bit and entered a home game against Tennessee at 5-2, the only losses coming from Florida and Mississippi State, the latter on the road. Their bowl bid was quite safe as they only needed to win one of the next five games to be eligible, but this night more was at stake than just a bowl.

The time had come. Tennessee was fairly bad, Kentucky was fairly good. The game was at home. It was time to win again. After losing 26 straight contests to the Vols, Kentucky broke through in 2011, then promptly lost the next five. This was getting old.

Trading points throughout a chippy first half that saw both teams get unsportsmanlike conduct fouls assigned to every player after a fight on the first play of the game, Kentucky went into the locker room up 21-20. They then opened the second half by fumbling twice and punting the next two possessions, all while Tennessee chipped in two field goals and missed a third. With under five minutes to play and also trailing by five, Kentucky knew they needed to score. Marching into Tennessee territory, the ‘Cats reached the opposing 11-yard line when Stephen Johnson went flying over two orange-and-white players to reach the end zone with 33 seconds left. Kroger Field erupted as he hit the pylon. After extending the lead to three with a two point conversion, Kentucky held on to win as Tennessee simply ran out of time.

There are few sweeter feelings for a Kentucky football fan than beating Tennessee. This was a win the Kroger Field faithful would remember for a long time.

1: Kentucky topples #10 South Carolina

This was the football win every fan dreams of: watching their favorite team defeat at Top-10 powerhouse and storm the field. It was very unexpected and involved a furious comeback from an 18-point halftime deficit.

After falling behind 14-0, Kentucky trimmed the lead to 7 before giving up two more scores while scoring only a field goal themselves. Thus, they trailed 28-10 going into halftime. The second half was an entirely different story. Kentucky’s defense clamped down, not allowing another point the rest of the way as they cut the deficit to 11, then 5, then at last found themselves in last-chance mode on a 4th & 7 with only a 1:15 left on the clock. This is the point in which most comebacks fall short, especially if they are Kentucky ones, but quarterback Mike Hartline threw a deep pass to wide-open Randall Cobb in the end zone to take their first lead of the game. You could probably hear the crowd cheering from Versailles as Cobb caught that catch. Now the only thing left was for Kentucky to give up a last second touchdown to Carolina as time expired to ruin everything.

It sure looked like that was what would happen, as the Gamecocks marched to the UK 20 with 11 seconds left and threw a pass to the end zone. Then Anthony Mosely intercepted it. Now you could hear the crowd from Cincinnati.

It’s been ten years since that top-10 win, and Kentucky has come a long way under Mark Stoops since hiring him in 2012, even becoming a top-10 team briefly in 2018. Yet they have not defeated a top-10 squad since, home or away, though Penn State was #12 during the Citrus Bowl. Something tells me that will change very soon.

Kentucky will face Florida, Auburn, Georgia this season. All could be top-10 teams. They better watch out.

Go Big Blue!

Poll

Which UK home win of the past decade is your favorite?

This poll is closed

  • 14%
    2010 South Carolina
    (10 votes)
  • 15%
    2017 Tennessee
    (11 votes)
  • 23%
    2018 Mississippi State
    (16 votes)
  • 26%
    2019 Louisville
    (18 votes)
  • 11%
    2011 Tennessee
    (8 votes)
  • 8%
    Other
    (6 votes)
69 votes total Vote Now