Admit it. You were worried.
Kentucky, wearing an 0-2 start like a leaden yoke, was up 14-0 over Mississippi State at halftime, but that was only through the grace of two big plays: The Bulldog defense made a rare mistake and gave up a 51-yard sprint to Terry Wilson, which led to a UK touchdown pass; and Josh Paschal picked off a pass and sprinted, er, rumbled 71 yards to just outside the end zone. Chris Rodriguez did the rest.
So the Cats were up two TDs, in part because a State receiver let a potential touchdown pass squirt through his fingers into the hands of Jamin Davis as time expired. The Wildcat defense had surrendered a bucket of yardage to the MSU Air Raid but so far, no points.
Meanwhile, for two quarters Tennessee had nearly played the Georgia Bulldogs right out of their silver britches down between the hedges, leading 21-17. Them Vols, it seemed, are for real.
And now the third quarter was starting against a Bulldog offense that had reduced defending national champion LSU to a steaming bowl of gumbo. One drive… one big play… one missed Kentucky tackle and the momentum could quickly shift from one side of the field to the other. Zero-and-two could become even worse, rendering the entire season itself a big, fat zero.
But then things began to ensue, as only things can and will in 2020.
The Bulldogs down in Athens took note of the peeled paint in their Sanford Stadium locker room and played like the team described as “Alabama without the trophy case.” So hungry for another stab at an SEC title, Georgia destroyed the Orange in the second half, winning 44-21. Them Vols went limping back to Rocky Top.
Meanwhile in Lexington, the Kentucky offense kept sputtering but the UK defense kept making tackles and even better, picking off passes. Six, before the night was over and as time on the game clock dissolved, the Wildcat defense became even mightier.
Ex-UK assistant Mike Leach, now the acclaimed guru of the Air Raid offense he helped administer under Hal Mumme, kept searching his playbook for answers. He even changed quarterbacks but the new guy threw the ball to a blue jersey, too. Twice.
A Kentucky defense that was beginning to look like a fraud based on pre-season praise turned in one of the most dominant performances in the nation that night – and one of the best in school history.
Only once have the Wildcats picked off more passes. That came early in 1993, when a pair of Florida QBs combined to throw seven interceptions only, wouldn’t you know, the Cats couldn’t turn them into points. They lost 24-21 on a last-second TD grab by Chris Doering, now an analyst for the SEC Network.
Doering is one of several football experts who predicted good, if not great things for this edition of Mark Stoops’ Kentucky. Some of us foresaw a 2-2 start, some said 3-1 and a few flirted with the giddy notion of 4-0 heading into the Georgia matchup on Oct. 24.
But after the Wildcats stumbled out of the gate, falling to Auburn and then Ole Miss in crushing fashion, an 0-5 disaster seemed almost logical.
Those thoughts dissipated in a flurry of interceptions and long bombs off the foot of Max Duffy, whose legend seems to grow every time the Aussie punter takes the field.
Duffy’s best kick could have been the flick of his right foot that sent an errant snap out of the end zone for a safety that might have turned into a Bulldog touchdown. And the free kick that followed likely was going to give the Dogs a short-field shot at a quick score.
Not on Duffy’s watch.
Kentucky fans are learning to avoid heading for the concession stand on fourth down. You never know what you might miss when Max is in the game. That pretzel can wait.
Duffy’s crushing kick sent the Bulldog return man scrambling into reverse, pinning MSU deep in its own territory, one of several reasons Mississippi State never found the end zone Saturday night. It was the first time a Leach-coached offense failed to put up a touchdown.
So now it’s on to Knoxville, where the Cats are hoping to match the defensive effort they turned in against State and the explosive offensive numbers they put up against Mississippi.
If they do, they’ll snap that 17-game Neyland Stadium losing skid. And the year 2020, which seems to be trying to turn us all into gravel, won’t seem so bad after all.