It had to end this way, didn’t it?
Two teams, which had squared off 88 times, splitting the series 42-42-4, playing to the last six seconds, with the ballclub that had trailed the entire game throwing into the end zone with a chance to tie or win. It seemed like the perfect way to end it.
Of course, that’s a relative term, depending on whether you’re Big Blue or Black and Gold.
The pendulum that is the Kentucky-Vanderbilt series swung Saturday night toward Lexington for just the second time in the last six games, the Wildcats surviving 20-13 in a mish-mash of skittering passes, brutally tough rushing yards and tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
The Cats squared their record at 3-3 heading into a bye week, just ahead of another “winnable” game, this one against Mississippi State. Perhaps by then Stephen Johnson will have corrected whatever flaws he has in his passing technique that forced UK offensive co-coordinators Eddie Gran and Darrin Hinshaw to abandon the air attack – totally – and play ground-and-pound with the game on the line.
In the fourth quarter, nursing just a 17-13 lead, the Wildcats went on a 56-yard scoring drive – modest in length, but impressive when you consider the fact that it took 13 clock-gobbling plays, grinding the clock down to a meager 93 seconds left.
Plenty of time for the Commodores.
The Wildcats dropped back in a soft zone, seemingly content to give the ‘Dores the short, underneath yardage, which Vandy gladly accepted and turned into some big gainers. “That wasn’t designed to be that soft, really,” Mark Stoops said. “We can’t let them get first downs and get out of bounds.”
But they did, which is why Kentucky found itself backed up on its own eight-yard-line inside the game’s final 30 seconds, trying desperately to protect a seven-point lead. The Wildcats produced just enough defense, mixed with a little bit of luck.
Vandy misfired on first down but on second, there was tight end Jared Pinkney in the left corner of the end zone, with just enough room on a UK defender. Vanderbilt quarterback Kyle Shurmur put it right where he needed to – in Pinkney’s hands.
Pinkney couldn’t quite hang on and the Cats lived to play even more defense, successfully defending against two passes thrown toward Kalija Lipscomb. The Commodores could only watch as Kentucky took over on downs, taking a glorious knee on the game’s final play.
Vandy now has lost three games by a total of 17 points. The most recent was to a Kentucky team that is enjoying a resurgence, thanks to its defense.
“They haven’t flinched,” Stoops said of his defenders. “They didn’t let the negativity, bad breaks or anything deter them from getting the victory, any way you slice it.”
Denzil Ware had 2.5 tackles-for-loss and 1.5 sacks. Josh Allen had 1.5 and 1.5. The ‘Dores never could settle on a consistent means of attack, even though the SEC’s top rusher, Ralph Webb, ran for 100 yards before he was sidelined with an ankle injury.
And just as the UK defense is finding itself, the offense is suddenly searching. Clue number one is the quarterback. Stephen Johnson, so effective in wins over New Mexico State and South Carolina, seems to have done a 180 after the loss at Alabama and his performance against Vandy – completing only 10 of 24 passes with an interception and a yardage total of a paltry 49 yards.
“This upcoming week we’re going to work on my targets and getting the ball to the wide receivers and just putting it on them,” Johnson said. Sound idea.
But despite his woes in the pocket (and scrambling outside of it), Johnson ran for 55 yards, part of a UK conglomerate that produced 258 rushing yards – against a defense that held Florida under 100.
Kentucky’s three-headed tailback monster took over. Early it was Boom Williams, who ran for 54 yards but disappeared after his fumble led to a Vandy scoop-and-score at the start of the third quarter.
That’s when the Cats gave way to Jojo Kemp (12 for 55) and true freshman Benny Snell, who ran for 94 yards on 20 carries.
““I bring all I can. I bring all I got,” Snell said. “This offense, I’m just glad to be a part of it. I just bring all I got.”
Stoops ladled out the praise on Snell. “Hard nosed, great balance, tough runner, tough mindset, tough attitude, no BS about him,” Stoops said. “He’s here to work, win football games and get better, and I love that.”
So does the Big Blue Nation, whose favorite football team now is halfway to a bowl bid.
And, after 89 games, one to the good on Vanderbilt.