(Photos courtesy UK Athletics)
So the Kentucky seniors said goodbye at Kroger Field Saturday afternoon and they had some fun on the way out the door. They hung 56 on a New Mexico State team coached by a guy who walked in their cleats nearly four decades ago.
Doug Martin was a UK quarterback in the early ’80s; now he’s in the final weeks of a career spent in part at a school that doesn’t have a lot of money or much of a football program; they can’t even afford air conditioning in their locker room back home. And it gets kind of hot in the Land of Enchantment.
There was nothing enchanting about Saturday’s game, unless you like beat-downs. Kentucky spread the love. Seven Wildcats ran the football, 12 caught passes and three took snaps at quarterback. On defense, 24 UK players at least assisted in a tackle. Guys who’ve done little more than practice up until now got a taste of a real college football game.
“That’s fun and that’s joyous for all of us to watch those guys play that work so hard that don’t get an opportunity to play,” said coach Mark Stoops.
It’s the kind of fun you can expect when you pay a non-conference opponent a tad more than a million bucks to serve as cannon fodder. And it’s the kind of victory that builds confidence going into the season finale against The Arch Rival.
Kentucky’s fifth-year seniors have beaten Louisville three of the last four years. The first came when they were freshmen in 2016 against a U of L team led by Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson, whose name and retired number now adorn Cardinal Stadium.
That victory locked up a bowl bid for the Wildcats, their first under Stoops. In fact, this entire UK roster has known nothing but winning records and bowl bids (last year’s COVID-induced exclusively SEC season is the lone exception; the final record was 5-6 but did include a bowl victory).
Thanks to their efforts, Wildcat fans have intensified their expectations. For a half-dozen Saturdays, UK flirted with the rarified air that comes with an undefeated record. Kentucky was the darling of the national media, one of those unexpected story-lines that will pop up from time to time.
Three straight losses brought the Wildcats crashing back to earth but still, they had much to play for – and still do.
After the bitterly disappointing loss to Tennessee, the Cats knew a trip to the Sugar Bowl likely had melted away. But a shot at double-digit victories was still a possibility if they could run the rest of the table, including a bowl game win.
Step one is in the bag after the 56-16 verdict over the Aggies. It had its blemishes, including a New Mexico State scoop-and-score during Kentucky’s first possession, when quarterback Will Levis and center Luke Fortner misconnected on a snap.
But after that, the Aggies could manage only field goals. Kentucky attacked by land (119 rushing yards for Chris Rodriguez; 75 on just six carries – all in the fourth quarter – by true freshman La’vell Wright) and by air (419 passing yards and four touchdowns for Levis).
Wan’Dale Robinson and Josh Ali frolicked through the Aggie defense, Robinson hanging up 181 yards, fourth-highest total in school history. Ali posted 164 receiving yards and two touchdowns, both career highs. Tight end Justin Rigg caught two TD passes, the first time a Kentucky TE had multiple touchdown grabs since C.J. Conrad had three against (well, what do you know?) New Mexico State in 2016.
“We came out a bit slow,” Ali said, “but in the second half everyone got in the groove. We came out and we handled business.”
The business of Kentucky football lately has been winning and it began with the fifth-year seniors on this squad. After the upset of Jackson and the Cards in 2016, UK accepted a bid to the TaxSlayer Bowl in Jacksonville. The Wildcats lost to Georgia Tech but even still, the players were given rings.
After a loss? You bet. Because only one side of the bauble recognized the bowl game. On the other – the score of their win over the Cardinals and an image of the Governor’s Cup.
The big trophy has resided in Lexington each of the past two seasons thanks to a pair of blowout victories. A third straight romp could be tough to get. The way the Cardinals have been scoring points lately, next Saturday’s matchup might turn into a track meet.
Kentucky will need the same kind of groove it found on Senior Day. It just might lead the Wildcats to a Florida bowl bid and a shot at win number 10.
And another ring.