(Photo courtesy WKYT-TV)
ORLANDO — Practically all of the Kentucky football Wildcats had returned to their locker room at Camping World Stadium flush with joy, celebrating yet another victory in the Vrbo Citrus Bowl.
A handful of them had played in the event the last time UK had made the trip to Orlando in search of a 10th straight victory, among them linebacker DeAndre Square. He was a freshman when Benny Snell and Josh Allen led those Cats to victory over a traditional Big 10 power and now, Square had done the same thing. But that’s where the similarities ended.
Square couldn’t return to the locker room under his own power, so badly damaged was his right ankle. He might have made it on his own eventually but instead, he was lifted completely off the ground and carried back by two members of the UK athletic staff, like a fallen warrior returning on his shield. And he was every bit the warrior on this day, as were his teammates.
In the moments following Kentucky’s dramatic, bone-crunching and wildly entertaining victory, the Wildcats celebrated amid floating confetti, turning and waving to thousands of their fans who had filled first the city and then their side of the stadium.
Unlike regular-season games where, after a win, they might touch base with a friend or family member, sign an autograph or two and then hustle inside, players and coaches lingered. They hugged and laughed, posed for a team photo on the giant Citrus Bowl midfield logo and then broke off into individual groups for even more pictures.
It was as if nobody wanted the moment to end.
It was only natural because a game that opened up as what looked to be a convincing victory had become cause for despair. Kentucky marched to a first quarter touchdown and two second-quarter field goals, taking a 13-3 lead to the locker room at intermission.
But in the third period, the Hawkeye defense finally adjusted to the UK rushing attack, stifling the ground game that had helped the Cats rumble to that early advantage.
At the same time, the Iowa pass rush threatened to pound quarterback Will Levis into pieces, sacking him six times and smashing him whenever he attempted to run the ball. They had seen him do that when he faced the Hawkeyes as Penn State’s QB.
And on the offensive side of the ball, they began to successfully pick on the weaker spots in the Kentucky defense, left vulnerable by massive personnel losses. Iowa put up two touchdowns for which the Cats had no answers.
Injuries and illnesses (some COVID-related, some not) had robbed the Wildcats of six starters and another handful of key reserves. It was nowhere near the Kentucky team that had put together the nine-game worksheet that launched the program to its second Citrus Bowl appearance in four seasons.
And now, with the game in the balance, the Wildcats had lost their best remaining defender. Square, even more vital to the Kentucky D with newly-minted All-American defensive end Josh Paschal sidelined by injury, had suffered one himself.
Early in the third period, Square limped to the sideline, where trainers “spatted” the shoe on his right ankle; that is, they applied about a half-mile of athletic tape on the outside of his cleat in an attempt to provide more support.
It didn’t work.
Square was battling intense pain; at one point he retreated to the UK locker room for additional treatment on the damaged wheel but when he emerged, the game dissolving away and his team now behind, he just couldn’t go.
Then he heard from his teammates.
“When he went out,” said defensive back Quandre Mosely, “we went over (and told him), ‘You gotta get back in, you gotta get back in.’ He went, “All right, bro, I’m comin’. i’m comin’.’ He got back in; he won the game for us. He won the game.”
The linebacker who had been declared “out” checked himself back in.
“I wasn’t even supposed to come back in,” said Square, “but Coach Stoops talked about doing something bigger than yourself and all I could think about is my teammates. I saw the way the game was going, and I just felt like I needed to step in no matter how I was feeling.”
Square said he was waiting for “certain stuff to kick in” (read, medication) and debating how effective he might be if he tried to return. He remembers defensive tackle Marquan McCall weighing in.
“It was a time-out,” Square said. “He grabbed me. He like yanked me and was like, ‘We need you,’ and then something clicked at that moment. I told (trainer) Gabe (Amponsah) to give me my helmet. He was like, ‘No, we got to see you run first,’ and when I ran I didn’t feel any pain. I just could run, so I grabbed my helmet.”
That’s why he was on the field as Iowa put together one final drive, looking for either a game-tying field goal or a game-winning touchdown. The Hawkeyes ripped off a pair of “chunk plays,” two passes good for 12 yards along with a couple of productive runs.
They were one or two plays from field goal range (and a potential missed Kentucky assignment away from a game-winning TD) when defensive coordinator Brad White took a shot. Instead of laying back, trying to cover Iowa receivers wherever they went, UK defenders brought more pressure. And it worked.
Senior defensive back Yusef Corker made a mad dash from the right edge for Iowa QB Spencer Petras.
It was Petras, who, on two previous scoring drives, had channeled Johnny Unitas, finding open receivers for big gainers. In fact, he had connected with tight end Sam LaPorta for a 36-yard scoring strike that pushed the Hawkeyes into the lead with 10:54 left to play.
With the Wildcat offense sputtering, the defense dug in and Square was a part of it. Twice Kentucky flamed out on fourth down and gave the ball back to the Hawkeyes. And twice, the UK defense rose up and forced punts. On both Iowa drives, essentially playing on one leg, Square was in on the third-down stop.
That’s when the UK offense finally came alive with one of the most significant scoring drives in school history, considering the stakes. They were 80 yards away with 3:31 left, facing an Iowa defense that up until then had blanked the Wildcats in the second half.
But like virtually every team Kentucky had faced that season, the Hawkeyes had no answer for Number 1.
Wan’Dale Robinson had returned to central Kentucky – specifically choosing UK over another potential transfer destination – to make plays in Liam Coen’s new offense. Likely to depart for the NFL Draft, the last three plays of what could be his final appearance in Kentucky blue will stir memories within the Big Blue Nation for a long time to come.
Levis, fighting off Hawkeye on-rushers, hit Robinson for seven yards. Then after a sack, he did it again, for 17 and a first down.
And finally, Levis spotted to Robinson running a post pattern just outside the left hashmarks at the 33-yard line. Levis delivered. Wan’Dale did the rest.
Speeding toward the sideline, Robinson tried to turn the corner. An Iowa defensive back closed quickly and looked as though he was ready to deliver the blow that would knock the ball-carrier out of bounds at around the 22.
Then Robinson did something other receivers, mere mortals, are hard-pressed to do: He jammed his foot in the ground, came almost to a complete stop and then changed directions, sprinting toward the end zone. “I’ve been doing that,” he told me in a post-game radio interview, “since I was six-years old.”
He picked the perfect time to relive his childhood.
Robinson nearly made the end zone, finally blunted inside the one-yard line, robbed of the glory that comes with the game-winning touchdown. That went to tailback Chris Rodriguez, who had to cover an additional five yards after a UK illegal procedure penalty.
No worries. Rodriguez took the handoff from Levis, slammed into Iowa defensive end Zach VanValkenburg, spun away from him and bulled through two more defenders into the end zone. When Rodriguez first broke away, VanValkenburg, head in his hands, sank to the turf. He had missed a chance to at least delay and deny Kentucky the go-ahead score.
Instead, it became UK 20, Iowa 17 with 1:48 left — still enough time for the Hawkeyes to spoil the BBN party.
Square, playing through intense pain, took the field one last time. “We got a lot of days of rest,” he said. “I can rest up, so I didn’t care.”
That’s why, when Corker zeroed in on Petras, forcing the Iowa QB to sling the ball downfield before he could properly set his feet, Square was waiting. He made a diving interception that had to survive a video review before it touched off the Big Blue Nation’s favorite kind of New Year’s Day celebration.
“I wasn’t even looking at the ball,” Square said, “and I saw something flying and I am like, whoa, there is the ball. I was like, ‘Okay, do I just let it fall or am I close enough to catch it?’ I am like, I am close enough to catch it, so I just get under and it fit right in the pocket. I didn’t have to do anything. It fit perfectly.”
A perfect fit and a perfect way to end his Kentucky career, if he decides to take a stab at the NFL. Whether he returns to Lexington or tries the draft, Square is carrying the unending respect of his teammates.
“Yeah, it takes a lot of heart to do something like that. It is kind of like a storybook ending. He gets ruled out, goes back in there,” Levis said to Square in the post-game media session. “I don’t know what they hopped you up with in the locker room, but it made you feel good enough to go play. To go back out there, not only just to play, but to get the game-stealing interception. Just a storybook ending. I am so happy for him, and he deserves all the recognition.”
It was a storybook ending of sorts as well for Stoops, given the chance to reconnect with his alma mater. He admitted to a pre-game moment where he gazed across the field at the Hawkeyes, adorned in the colors he had worn for four seasons during his time in Iowa City. Then it was back to work, coaching a team that was under-manned coming into the game and appeared to have lost its best linebacker midway through. But Square was there when his team needed him the most.
“We were getting thin,” Stoops said, “and the way he played through that pain, I don’t know how he did it. It just says a lot about this team.”
A team that, once again, finished with 10 victories and a Citrus Bowl championship, making it a truly happy new year for UK fans everywhere.