GAINESVILLE, Fla.: It was a Thursday night, nearly 30 years ago, when the Kentucky Wildcats boarded a plane in Columbia, South Carolina. They were about to do something on that flight that hadn’t been done by a UK football team in nearly a decade: Party.
As they celebrated a victory over the Gamecocks, word swept from one end of the jet to the other – it was the first time since 1984 that a Kentucky football team been able to break out the cheers mid-air.
Sure, there had been the occasional win in Nashville or Bloomington, just a bus ride away. But in-flight parties had stopped after the ’84 season that ended with a victory in the Hall of Fame Bowl in Birmingham.
Last Saturday night, the Wildcats partied on their charter flight home from Gainesville for the second time in five years, knocking off a Florida team that many had put well beyond the reach of Mark Stoops’ ballclub.
After all, it was the Gators who a week ago had surprised and impressed the college football world with a surprising win over then-number 7 Utah. On the same day, the Wildcats dispatched Miami (O.) but didn’t exactly inspire.
That’s why Florida was a three-point favorite when the folks in the desert first spoke and picked up steam as the week wore on. More and more money came in on the Gators and their multi-talented quarterback, Anthony Richardson. His performance against the Utes had prompted whispers of a Heisman campaign. By kickoff they were favored by nearly a touchdown.
That all ended in The Swamp.
With the offense coming to life in the second half and the defense bottling and throttling Richardson, the Cats silenced an electric crowd and resumed their role as the team that just might have enough to challenge Georgia for the top of the SEC East.
“Everyone doubting us again… that’s the way we like it,” Mark Stoops said on his post-game radio show. “That’s who we are. We are just a tough, grind it out, find-a-way-to-win football team.”
The search was on for much of the evening because for a majority of the time, Kentucky executed properly in just one of the three phases of the game. The offense once again struggled to run the ball and at times, protect quarterback Will Levis. Special teams, which sparkled last week, were a nightmare, costing the Cats with blown snaps on an extra point and a punt that resulted in a safety.
But the defense stiffened time after time. Linebacker Jordan Wright’s interception led to a short TD drive just before halftime. Until then it was Florida with all the momentum. That began to change.
“It was a tough, hostile environment,” Stoops said. “Okay. We took their best shot and regrouped at half and came right back at it.”
And they did it with D. Late in the third quarter, cornerback Keidron Smith provided a touchdown of his own with a pick-6 of a Richardson pass. And Smith knew it was coming.
Hours of film study, he told me later, had prepared him for the moment. When he saw the formation, he knew what the Gator quarterback was about to do. Instead of finding his receiver, Richardson connected with Smith, a man confident in his insights.
“It allows you to play so much faster on the field,” he said, “instead of trying to guess what the offense is going to do.”
Richardson could merely chase him to the end zone.
Smith’s TD gave Kentucky a tenuous 23-16 lead with a little more than three minutes remaining in the third quarter. The Gators were just one score behind but never mounted another serious drive, twice gambling on fourth down but failing.
The Wildcats made it tough on themselves, failing to capitalize the first time when Marc Ruffalo missed a routine, 38-yard field goal try.
But the next time the UK defense held, the offense came through, the run game roaring to life as the Wildcats drove the ball to the nine-yard line so Ruffalo could kick the clinching field goal.
A few minutes later, when the clock showed zeroes, Stoops became Kentucky’s all-time winningest coach, his 61 victories putting him one ahead of Bear Bryant. “That’s a special one,” he said, “to be able to do it here.”
For a while it looked as though the pre-game prognosticators were right, the ones who said the Gators would be too much for the Wildcats. One even predicted that Richardson would run over, around and through the Cats when he wasn’t passing them silly, calling Kentucky “soft.”
For a UK team that thrives when a chip is firmly planted on its shoulder, that was perfect.
During the post-game dance party in the locker room, Stoops climbed atop a metal folding chair to address his troops.
“Who’s ‘soft’ now?” he bellowed, to a chorus of hoots and cheers.
Four years ago, when the Wildcats last won in Gainesville, snapping a 31-year losing skid to Florida, then-offensive line coach John Schlarman and defensive lineman Josh Paschal, both battling cancer, were awarded game balls.
This time, it was the coach, in honor of his new status at the top of the career victory list. And when the team’s charter flight landed in Lexington at around 2:30 a.m. Sunday, one of his players took to the P.A. system to congratulate the coach again.
It was an in-flight party like no other.