It was glorious.
For four blessed hours, the Kentucky Wildcats — the same team that generously surrendered a 35-7 lead to Southern Miss; that melted in the Florida heat down in the swamp, that seemed to be playing Mark Stoops right out of a job – were in first place in the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division.
Then the guys in the Silver Britches ruined everything.
The Bulldogs give and the Bulldogs taketh away. Kentucky’s last-second field goal against Mississippi State touched off delirium two weeks ago. Georgia did the same thing Saturday night as time expired and kicked the Wildcats right out of first place.
“We had an unbelievable opportunity to win that game,” Mark Stoops said later.
He was talking about all the points his team left strewn about the field. He might as well have been talking about the slice of history that was right there in front of them.
Thanks to the newest friend of the Big Blue Nation, the Arkansas Razorbacks, Florida had lost its second SEC game of the season earlier in the day, 31-10 in Fayetteville, rendering Kentucky the new leader in the SEC East by a half game. Whooo, pig! Sooie!
So when they took the field at Commonwealth Stadium on a night made even more perfect, the Cats were in first place by the slimmest of margins. It was the first time since 1976 that a UK team hheld a lead on the rest of the league this late in the season (well, it didn’t lose a conference game in ’77, but that season has NCAA baggage). The ’76 ballclub went on to win Kentucky’s only SEC title in modern history, following up with a victory in the Peach Bowl.
This year’s team needed wins over the Dawgs and a faltering Tennessee team in Knoxville, as well as back-to-back losses by the Gators, to earn its first trip to Atlanta for the championship game. None of it likely, but entirely possible.
Arkansas did its part. And a rejuvenated LSU team is capable of beating Florida in Baton Rouge. The rest was up to the Wildcats. But they just couldn’t take all the parts and spin them into gold.
The rear-view mirror after a game like this one can be an instrument of torture. It reveals so many mistakes that you want to rip it down and throw it out the window.
Glance back and you’ll see the holding call near the end of the first half, which pushed the Cats out of field goal range and a chance for three precious points.
In the second half, Kentucky actually HAD three more on the scoreboard but had to give them back on another holding goal during the field goal attempt.
And then there’s the touchdown pass that morphed into an interception that really was a fumble.
Late in the third quarter, Stephen Johnson dropped back and looked deep for Jeff Badet. Johnson has done remarkable things this season; hitting the short pass is NOT on the list. But his touch with the deep ball has been remarkable. In the closing seconds against Mississippi State, he floated a perfect long pass into the hands of Dorian Baker at the goal line, only to see a defensive back knock it away.
This time, he was perfect again. Badet was streaking down the field, more than a step ahead of defensive back Deandre Baker. The pass found his palms only Badet, between strides, couldn’t secure it. The ball popped out but before it could fall harmlessly to the ground, it defied odds and wound up in the belly of Baker, who had to be just as surprised as the 62,507 in Commonwealth Stadium.
Instead of helplessly watching Badet racing into the end zone, Baker looked down and beheld the football.
Touchdown? No. Turnover? Yes, one of two on the night and yet, for a change Kentucky won the turnover battle, forcing three by a Georgia team that has the Bulldog faithful still wondering if they did the right thing by chasing off Mark Richt.
All he did was deliver nine or 10 victories a season and a couple of SEC championships. Big Blue fans drool about a standard of football living like that and on this night, they were getting their first taste. Their team was playing its way into contention for the first time since the conference was separated into two divisions, already owning four SEC wins, including a rare three in a row.
“We’re gonna keep on knocking down doors,” Stoops said, and with a roster full of young talent, there’s reason to believe him.
Sadly, the biggest door of all was right there in front of them, the one with the Georgia Dome in Atlanta on the other side. The guys in the Silver Britches slammed it shut.