(The Wildcats’ victory in Columbia touched of an epic celebration in the UK locker room, one that sent Mark Stoops flying on the hands of his players. Photo by UK Athletics/Britney Howard)
COLUMBIA, Missouri – A member of the UK radio network crew had just climbed onto the press box elevator following the Kentucky’s wild, 15-14 beyond-last-second victory over Missouri.
A couple was on board as well. Her: “You’ve got to talk to those students!” and proceeded to voice her displeasure to her better half (quite possibly Missouri’s athletics director) over the fact that Tiger-backers, early in the fourth quarter, launched into the favorite song of all underdogs on the verge of pulling an upset:
The woman went on to tell her companion that she believed the chants had lit a fire under the Wildcats. But in a way, you couldn’t blame the Tiger fans. Their vaunted defense, tops in the SEC against the run, had throttled Heisman hopeful Benny Snell and held the Cats to a lone field goal, which came on the first drive of the game.
What the Mizzou student body failed to understand – and learned in the hardest of ways – is that if you’re going to bust out that chant, you have to wait until the game is firmly in hand.
It never was.
Somehow, Kentucky scrapped its way into a final drive, lone-possession situation and, thanks to a pass interference call on the last play of regulation, the Cats were awarded an untimed down. They put it to the best of use.
C.J. Conrad’s touchdown catch of a pass thrown by Terry Wilson, one of three QBs who took snaps for the Cats, touched off an on-field celebration that lasted nearly 20 minutes.
“An amazing victory,” Mark Stoops called it. “The guts and determination of this team – it was out of this world.”
So were the efforts of the UK defense. Already one of the nation’s best, the Wildcat defenders in the second half totally shut down QB Drew Lock and a Mizzou offense that had hung up 66 point the week before. The Tigers had eight second-half possessions. Each was three-and-out.
“That’s absolutely amazing, with that quarterback and that team,” Stoops said. “It was just guts and the determination of our team. It was out of this world.”
And now, try this on for size: Kentucky will host Georgia this coming Saturday for at least a share of the SEC East Division title and the Wildcats’ first berth in the conference championship game in Atlanta.
“We’ve got a monster coming at us,” Lynn Bowden said, minutes after turning in a monstrous game.
All Bowden did was make 13 catches (second in the UK record book) for 166 yards – not to mention a punt return for a TD with 5:18 left to play, giving his team hope. Bowden had been feeling it.
“Lynn wanted the ball in his hands,” Stoops said. “He said, ‘I want in on punt return.’ I said, Go do your thing.”
And that thing he does is make plays. In fact, it was Bowden who made a catch on the penultimate play in regulation – a 17-yard toss from Wilson against a Missouri defense that had safeties strung across the goal line, but nobody else between their defensive line and the end zone. The Tigers were conceding the ground, giving Kentucky a chance, unimpeded, to get closer to pay dirt.
Said UK radio network analyst Jeff Piecoro, “That’s the dumbest defense I’ve ever seen.”
The Wildcats made it work for them. Bowden skittered out of bounds, setting up the final play – a lob to wideout Ahmad Wagner, the ex-basketball player from Iowa. And like a power forward, he went up strong, absorbing contact. The flag fell and hopes rose among the Big Blue Nation.
After what seemed like an interminable discussion by the officials came the ruling – pass interference. And since a game cannot end on a defensive penalty, Kentucky would be given the ball at the two-yard-line.
On another day, another time, the call might have gone out for Snell. But Missouri had done a magnificent job of silencing Kentucky’s best offensive threat, who finished with 67 yards on 19 carries. No, this one was in the hands of Wilson.
He’d been roasted on social media. And now, he’s toasted as a hero for firing the scoring strike to Conrad. For just the second time in school history, UK won with a touchdown on the final play of the game – dating back to 1971, when the Cats got a victory against Vanderbilt on a pick-6 by safety Daryl Bishop on the game’s last play.
“You have to find a way if you’re going to be a championship team. You have to find a way to win games like this,” Stoops said.
Now, they have to find a way to beat Georgia. And you can bet, when the Dawgs come to town, no matter how the game is unfolding, you’ll never hear the “over-rated” chant from the Kentucky faithful – at least until a victory is solidly in the bank.
And if you’re wondering if Snell actually heard the taunts of the Tiger fans, know this: As soon as the game was over, he took off running up the berm in front of the Missouri students, arms raised as though he was flying.
Thanks to Mizzou’s stingy defense, it was his longest run of the day. But it was also the sweetest.