The memories were so, SO bitter. How many times had Kentucky beaten Florida, up and down the field both in Lexington and Gainesville, only to have the scoreboard blinking the wrong way as the clock struck zero?
A missed chip-shot field goal in the final minute… a no-call as the play clock expired before a Gator touchdown in overtime… a penalty, nullifying an 86-yard punt returned for a touchdown by Derek Abney… Jared Lorenzen, throwing a wild interception that led to a late, game-winning Florida touchdown… and lest we forget: a UK defense that forgets to cover an open receiver in the end zone – TWICE.
And now, it seemed, there would be another heartbreaker added to the list. UK up 20-13, closing minutes, third and goal for the Gators at the Kentucky 10-yard-line and Emory Jones throws incomplete to Trent Whittemore. Perhaps Florida would settle for a field goal and try to get the ball back. Or maybe gamble on fourth and 10 and take a shot at the end zone.
But wait. Flag down. Kentucky’s Octavious Oxendine called for a facemask violation and the Gators would get a fresh set of downs. Now they had to travel just five yards to tie the game – or go for two and escape with a 21-20 win.
We would add that facemask penalty to the long, long list of agonizing recollections.
Then something incredible happened. The UK defense, which spent all but four minutes and change on the field during the fourth quarter, did what it had done since UF’s opening drive. It kept Florida out of the end zone.
First down – swing pass complete but a loss of four. Second down – oops, yet another false start by the Gators, thanks to a raucous UK crowd that was in full throat well before opening kickoff. Big Blue lungs helped force eight illegal procedure calls on the night, and number eight couldn’t have come at a better time.
Third down resulted in just a three-yard gain; Yusef Corker and Carrington Valentine saw to that. UK’s pass defense on the last two plays was designed to clog the end zone and keep catchers of short passes close to the line of scrimmage.
Now, fourth down – THAT is the play the Big Blue Nation will remember, one they’ll talk about forever.
It takes its place in UK football lore alongside Wan’Dale Robinson’s 41-yard catch/run for a score, J.J. Weaver’s interception that led to Chris Rodriguez waltzing into the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown and, perhaps the gaudiest play of all, Josh Paschal exploding through a hole to bat an attempted field goal into the hands of Trevin Wallace, who turned it into a UK touchdown.
With the game on the line and history hanging in the balance, Jones dropped back and spotted Whittemore in the end zone, open for a fleeting second. He fired over the middle but before his missile could cross the goal line, here came linebacker Jacquez Jones, laying out as though he, himself, were a wide receiver, slapping the ball away at the last second.
Kentucky ball. From Victory Formation, Will Levis took the snap, sank to a knee and it was over. The party began and the Kroger Field playing surface disappeared beneath a blue and white sea of giddiness.
Those are the moments Kentucky fans can finally savor, along with their own ability to rally as one and become the kind of decibel-crushing weapon their Wildcats have witnessed only in enemy stadiums.
If he could have done it, Mark Stoops would have awarded game balls to 61,632 (minus the people clad in orange) screaming Cat fans.
“That’s for you,” Stoops said of the fans. “They really showed up in a big, big way today and had an impact on the game. They affected the football game in a very positive way. I really can’t thank you enough.”
It’s the way he started his post-game news conference and the first thing he said in his post-game radio show. “Our fan base made a difference tonight,” he told Tom Leach, especially noting back-to-back false start calls that moved the Gators from third-and-one to third-and-11, leading to a Kentucky defensive stop.
“I am really glad to deliver for our fan base,” he said. “But I also want them to know, they were a part of it.”
And now he wants more, starting with this Saturday’s game with LSU. “That’s what it can be like every week,” he said. “We can recruit to that and we can win games. That makes a difference.”
They’ve won five games (against no losses) and number six would put the Wildcats in the position they’ve coveted the most: facemask-to-facemask with the Georgia Bulldogs. The Southeastern Conference football championship game is played in Atlanta, but if you’re in the Eastern Division, you have to travel through Athens to get there. Unfortunately for the Cats, their matchup with the Dawgs is not in Lexington but down between the hedges.
Still, take care of business and you have the opportunity to put a hammerlock on the divisional lead. To get there, the Wildcats will need to handle an LSU team embarrassed on its home turf last Saturday night in a loss to the Auburn Tigers.
They could use some help, once again, from fans who now know how to shake a stadium – and help their favorite football team win a ballgame.