LEXINGTON, Ky. — When it was finally over and he could breathe again, after Vanderbilt tried and failed to tie the game on four flings inside Kentucky’s 15-yard line in the final 35 seconds Saturday night, Mark Stoops threw his headset.
Why? Maybe it was joy over a 20-13 victory that keeps the Wildcats’ bowl hopes alive. Perhaps it was irritation that it was ever-so-close after Kentucky raced out to a 17-3 halftime lead. Could’ve been a bit of both, but it was definitely also relief.
“I was smoked,” Stoops said. Emotionally speaking, “I was smoked. You always want it to look easier, but we’re not built that way.”
No, these Wildcats, now 3-3 overall and 2-2 in SEC play, are like a neglected old car whose restoration is happening in fits and starts because parts are hard to find. Every so often, that engine revs and you can imagine what it might someday be. But mostly, in the meantime, getting from Point A to Point B in one piece constitutes success.
You close your eyes, turn the key and pray that thing turns over.
That was Saturday for Stoops, in what amounted to the Job Security Bowl for him and Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason. One of them was going to take another ugly loss that would chip away another chunk of faith from his fan base. So call it an ugly win for Kentucky if you want — aesthetically, that is inarguable – but it sure beats the alternative.
“There is a lot to be said about building on games like that,” Stoops said. “Until we change the performance on the field when bad things happen, then the result’s going to be the other way.”
In other words, the Wildcats have lost a lot of games just like this.
When Kentucky gives up a 65-yard kickoff return right before halftime, when star tailback Boom Williams coughs up a fumble that is returned for a touchdown, when quarterback Stephen Johnson follows that up with an interception on his way to 49 yards passing for an entire game and when somehow four Wildcats can’t recover a muffed punt inside Vanderbilt’s 10-yard line in the fourth quarter, they usually don’t win that kind of game. Saturday, somehow, they did.
“Now when bad things happen, you just keep on staying the course, keep on fighting,” Stoops said. “Love, trust and believe in each other (and) good things happen.”
Like when Kengera Daniel stood up Vanderbilt’s star tailback, Ralph Webb, on fourth-and-1 at the Wildcats’ 37-yard line with 8:39 to go. Like when Kentucky rode running backs Jojo Kemp, a hell-bent senior, and Benny Snell, a head-busting freshman, to a 13-play, 56-yard field goal drive that ate up more than six minutes and left the Commodores with just 93 seconds and no timeouts to score a tying touchdown.
Like when, with a pinch of luck, Stoops’ resurgent defense bent but did not buckle at the end.
“You have to dig down and make plays to win sometimes,” the coach said. “I don’t really care how it looks. Certainly I want to get a lot of things cleaned up, but I really am proud. I really was frustrated. It seemed like the ball was not bouncing our way again (but) our team overcame that.
“We can’t think negative, you can’t think it’s not going to happen. You just have to put your head down and go to the next play, keep on grinding and keep on working.”
By doing that, and thanks to the muddled mess that is the SEC East, Kentucky suddenly has renewed hope of its first postseason appearance since 2010. After a bye week, the Wildcats will host a struggling Mississippi State team, then travel to middling Missouri – and they still have a gimme game against Austin Peay in November.
Win those three, or two plus an upset of Georgia, Tennessee or Louisville, and Stoops goes bowling and gets off the hot seat. Mason won’t likely be so fortunate. The Commodores are now 2-3 overall, 0-2 in league play, and still have Georgia, Auburn, Missouri, Ole Miss and Tennessee to go.
Mason is now 9-20 as Vanderbilt’s head coach, trending in the wrong direction. Stoops started this season that way, opening with a home loss to Southern Miss, then a humiliating rout at Florida and a harrowing escape of New Mexico State. But something has changed the last three weeks.
The defense, with Stoops more involved, is making progress. The Commodores’ offense managed just 282 yards and a pair of field goals. The offense, even without passing from Johnson, looks tougher. With a potent power running game, these Cats have a new edge.
After that Southern Miss loss, Stoops “grabbed them up,” he said. “I wanted to see the whites of their eyes. And I told them to stay the course. I said, ‘Every son of a gun outside of this room right here will be attacking you and me. Put your head down, do your job and go to work, because there’s nowhere to run and there’s nowhere to hide. You either man up and get better or you cave.’ ”
Kentucky has not caved. It won a slugfest with South Carolina, went toe-to-toe with No. 1 Alabama for a half and left Tuscaloosa with a measure of pride, and then instead of finding a way to lose to Vanderbilt (like last season), found a way to win.
“I always knew” the Wildcats could, Kemp said. “We just had to put it out there on tape, just had to put it out there on the field. Don’t flinch, just keep working, and we’ll get it done.”