After the less-than-expected beat down by Bama on the road in Tuscaloosa, a date with the Vanderbilt Commodores makes for the perfect homecoming. A bounce back UK victory over your perennial fellow SEC “dore”mats would be a necessary soothing salve to a team looking to restore their season. The Cats need to permanently delete the mistake-prone memories of last week and focus entirely on the current task at hand. After a one game reprieve, it’s back to the pressure packed world of must-wins, coaching hot seats, and hopes of bowl eligibility. Because if you lose to Vanderbilt, there simply are no more second chances. Never mind that the Commodores have taken 4 of the last 5, for Coach Mark Stoops the stakes in this game are extraordinarily high. If the Vandy loss last year was haunting, a homecoming loss this year against the Black and Gold will be absolutely terrorizing. The prospect of another losing season with the specter of Les Miles hovering in the shadows are what lame duck coaching nightmares are made of.
Speaking of nightmares, if a tie is like kissing your sister, then UK and Vandy are like ugly kissing twin SEC step sisters. The two hard-luck programs are tied with each other with identical records of 42 wins, 42 losses and 4 ties in their head-to-head meetings. Of Kentucky’s 172 conference victories, nearly a quarter of them have come at the expense of our music city rivals.
Vanderbilt scholars may be smarter than us in the classroom but as with all Ivy League wannabees, intelligence is often overrated on the football field. On this particular afternoon, it’s brawn over brains as UK topped VU 20-13. With Citrus Bowl officials in the house looking on, the Cats took the opening kickoff, marched right down the field and scored on their way to a commanding 17-3 halftime lead. I was feeling pretty confident but Oscar Combs told me to “settle down because this game is going down to the wire.”
Kentucky’s ever improving defense kept Vanderbilt and their one-eyed quarterback in check for most of the windy afternoon, but a scoop and score after a Boom Williams fumble to start the third quarter finally gave the twenty or so Commodore fans in attendance something to cheer about. Kentucky tried to play the part of gracious hosts throughout the remainder of the second half but Vanderbilt couldn’t quite fully capitalize. An anemic UK passing attack, an untimely interception and a muff of a fumbled punt recovery had the raucous Commonwealth Stadium crowd shaking its head and fearing the worst. However, a climactic final potentially game-tying Vanderbilt drive fell just short as the Cats held on for dear life. Kentucky was led in rushing by a beast of a performance by Benny Snell who finished with 94 yards on 20 carries. JoJo Kemp and Stephen Johnson had one rushing touchdown apiece as UK improved to 3-3 on the season.
Afterwards, Coach Stoops appeared pleasantly pleased as his team regains some much-needed momentum. “I could not be more proud of our team and the victory. We overcame a lot of adversity and that’s what you have to do. You have to dig down and make plays to win sometimes.” This team has shown that it can take a punch which bodes well for surviving the remainder of the season.
Coaches always claim that they approach the schedule one game at a time. Well I’m no coach, so permit me to look way ahead and ride this wave of optimism for everything that it’s worth. Mississippi State and Missouri are games that are certainly winnable. Throw in the automatic Austin Peay victory and you can already start packing for that long awaited bowl trip. As die-hard fans, let’s not stop there. A victory at home over a struggling Georgia team doesn’t appear out of the question. A road victory at Tennessee is a bit more improbable, but Butch Jones has been seen recently dancing with the devil and The Vols may come crashing back down from Rocky Top just in time for a shocking Kentucky upset. And strange things can certainly happen in season ending rivalry games with Louisville. I’m not saying, I’m just ……STOP! GET A GRIP! WE ONLY JUST BEAT VANDERBILT! OK, what I AM SAYING is that the Cats have an open date next week to recuperate for the beginning of the stretch run featuring another upcoming “must-win” showdown. I’m saying UK 24, Mississippi State 14. Can anyone else say Citrus Bowl?
This blog posting was originally submitted as a UK Football Column for Nolan Group Media publications.
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