COLUMBIA, Mo — We dreamed in August of how this season would play out. Eddie Gran and Darrin Hinshaw, Kentucky’s new offensive braintrust, joined at the hip and dripping with success they mustered at Cincinnati, would map out a new blueprint for Drew Barker, the rifle-armed quarterback from northern Kentucky who would sling footballs all over Commonwealth Stadium.
Every now and then he would hand off and watch Boom Williams disappear on the horizon. Or he would jog to a slot formation so Jojo Kemp could take a few direct snaps. The offense, it would be glorious.
And with one painful shot to Barker’s back, it all changed. Funny how things change.
If Barker stays healthy, maybe it all works out. Maybe the Wildcats still bounce back from an embarrassing folderoo with Southern Miss and a spanking in Gainesville. Maybe they play Alabama tough and win all the rest of their league games.
Maybe they watch the Florida-Georgia game on their return flight from Missouri, rooting madly for the Bulldogs, their next opponent, knowing that if the Dawgs upend the Gators, the Wildcats, when they set foot on the ground back in Lexington, would be in first place in the SEC East.
Alas, Georgia lost. But that did little to dim the happiness on that plane, much less the locker room in Columbia where, after the coach’s post-game atta-boys speech, the Lord’s Prayer and a joyful rendition of “On, On, U of K,” they fired up the music. Song? Lyrics? Didn’t matter. It was the decibel level, cranked so high you could feel it in your chest, like a massive heartbeat, one shared by every player.
They had come to Columbia to take on a team smarting from an upset loss at home to Middle Tennessee. The final score (Blue Raiders 51, Tigers 46) was a surprise to most, as was a stunning number from the scoresheet: Mizzou had run 104 plays against MTSU, nearly all of them at the football equivalent of a breakneck pace.
Mark Stoops would have none of it.
The goal for his team: Make the Tigers play their game. Ratchet the pace down to ho-hum by keeping the Missouri offense off the field. And the only way to do that was to keep moving the chains in the deliberate manner they had adopted, right after Barker went down.
The pass-happy Wildcats of the first two weeks now are all too happy to spend the afternoon aboard the broad shoulder pads of Williams and Benny Snell, the Sundance Kid to his Butch Cassidy. And together they frustrated Mizzou.
Williams, who exploded for a 60-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, climbed over the 2,000-yard mark, becoming just the third Wildcat (Sonny Collins, Moe Williams) to get there before his senior season. Heck, he has four (or five) games left in his junior season.
Snell carried 38 times for 192 yards and two scores, leading Kentucky’s version of keep-away. Eighteen times, the Wildcats faced a third down. They made 10. Missouri was four-of-15. Credit a defense that heard the message early in the week, and often, from the head coach.
“I was hard on ‘em all week,” Mark Stoops said. In fact, he was hard on the entire team. “We were going to come here and play hard and play with an edge.”
It was an edge as hard as blue steel. Had it not been for an early fumble and a Missouri interception with the Wildcats on the verge of another touchdown late in the first half, this could have been a laugher.
In the end, the Wildcats got the last, laugh, anyway, securing win number five with Georgia on the way in. After that, it’s Austin Peay, an FCS (think 1-AA) team that’s come close to winning just once in eight games. The Governors, under new management this season, might be 0-10 by the time they arrive in Lexington, where they likely will serve as both cannon fodder and Kentucky’s gilded path to a bowl bid.
The plan was for the Wildcats to float into the post-season on the wings of a breathless aerial attack. Instead, they’re pounding and plodding. And they couldn’t be happier.