NASHVILLE — Before you trot out the tired, old bromides about Kentucky’s 34-17 win at Vanderbilt Saturday night, about how the Wildcats “played not to lose,” how they “took their foot off the gas,” how the “same old Kentucky” got too conservative in the second half, you should know this:
You’re right. Sort of.
At least Mark Stoops said as much. But it wasn’t because his team couldn’t replicate the same offensive pizzazz in the third quarter that it had whipped up in the second period. It was about defense, or lack of same.
After the game he admitted to UK Radio’s Tom Leach that when he saw how the third quarter was beginning to unfold, with the Wildcats unable to consistently corral the Commodores’ offense, he realized this one could get away if they weren’t careful.
“That’s what disappoints you when you’re not getting stops,” he said. “You gotta win the game. But you also wanna put your foot on the gas and get better. i really felt like we could have attacked offensively but you have to win. This is an SEC game and the name of the game is winning.”
Vandy had made a quarterback change, subbing fleet-footed Mike Wright for strong-armed Ken Seals. The QB run game Kentucky had anticipated suddenly sprang to life and the Cats had trouble stopping it. They answered Vanderbilt’s pair of second-half touchdowns with a mere field goal. The complexion of the game had changed.
“I wanted to let the offense go and build that confidence because I felt like we could attack,” Stoops said, “but if you do that and you turn the ball over, that’s reckless.”
So in a sense Kentucky did, indeed, play not to lose. It was a game the Wildcats had to win. A loss would have meant a regular season record no better than 8-4. Solid, respectable and in some corners, highly coveted. Heck, a few seasons back UK fans would have stood on their bar stools and cheered at the thought of eight successful Saturdays.
But this year began like few others, with a half dozen victories while the loss column remained a nice, plump goose egg. Then came a matchup with the nation’s top team, some injuries, two more losses to SEC aerial circuses and suddenly, this trip to the Music City had a different connotation, just this side of desperation.
“We had to get this one and sometimes that puts a lot of pressure on you,” Stoops said. “We know we had to get this one and the guys responded.”
That they did, Chris Rodriguez rushing for 114 yards and a score, Will Levis delivering two touchdown passes, Wan’Dale Robinson hauling in one of them among his six grabs for 75 yards. And on defense, Jalen Geiger pulled a lame Vandy pass out of the air and raced in from 31 yards for a pick-six.
Defensive end Josh Paschal came through with another mighty effort, two quarterback sacks among his seven tackles. Safety Yusef Corker made eight stops, but the defense in the second half didn’t complement the offense the way it did in the first half. That’s why the Kentucky attack flattened out and the Wildcats began to play Beat the Clock.
When it finally ran out, UK had its fifth SEC win, locking up sole possession of second place in the Eastern Division. It’s just the second time since 1977 that the Cats have finished above .500 in SEC play.
It also left them with a coach who was happy with the win but still a bit frustrated once again with his defensive backs. “We still have to make some one-on-ones in the secondary,” Stoops said.
Kentucky seemed powerless to stop the air attacks by Mississippi State and Tennessee and on this night Vanderbilt found some success throwing the football. Fortunately for the Wildcats, not quite well enough and now they own another conference victory, which aren’t easy to come by.
“I tell the guys, look around the league. At the end of the day, just take a good look at the league. Look who’s above .500. It’s not easy,” Stoops said. “People don’t realize, we beat each other. It’s just hard. These are good teams.
“We beat the crap out of each other and it gets mentally and physically hard.”
And after the three-game gauntlet that had threatened to spoil what had been a magical season thus far, the trip home after win number seven came with a large dose of relief.
“We needed that,” Stoops said. “It’s been too long.”
True enough. Kentucky hadn’t won a football game since October 9. Only bad things have happened since. Until Saturday.
“When you get physically and emotional beat down you gotta respond,” said Stoops. “You gotta fight back.”
They had just enough fight to put this one away, ending a three-game skid. They’re one of only four SEC teams with a winning record in conference play. That is definitely not the same old Kentucky. But it’s a team that still has some work to do.