More than 1,000 yards of total offense. Seventy-four points. Touchdown bombs, sailing through the raindrops.
So why didn’t this feel like the great game that it no doubt looked like to any impartial fan, peeking at Kentucky vs. Missouri on a blustery Saturday night?
There were times it seemed less like a football game and more like a bad heavyweight boxing match in a gas station parking lot.
If you’re a Tiger fan, it’s because your struggling team showed signs of life offensively that you haven’t seen since your season-opening, 72-43 blowout of Missouri State. Since then, your guys have averaged a meager 10 points per game. But turnovers and missed receivers ruined your trip.
And if you’re a Kentucky fan, it’s because your boys twice blew double-digit leads by allowing Mizzou to repeatedly gash your vaunted run defense and strafe you through the air.
But as Kentucky fans melted into the night, they were celebrating a 40-34 victory, the Wildcats’ fifth in six games. And now comes the R&R, however brief.
“This bye comes at a perfect time for us, we absolutely need it at this point.,” said Mark Stoops. “They played their hearts out for six straight weeks and it's a good opportunity for to us catch our breath there for a minute.”
All of the Big Blue Nation needed to catch its collective breath after watching Missouri pile up 568 yards, 268 on the ground against a UK defense that had surrendered an average of only 74 per game.
Of course, the Wildcats had given up some fat numbers through the air this season but at clutch moments, had been able to chase down enemy passers for sacks and TFLs. Not so much this time.
With 12:58 left in the first quarter, UK’s ace edge rusher Josh Allen slammed into Mizzou QB Drew Lock and forced a fumble that Courtney Love recovered at the Missouri 19. From that point on, it seemed, the only time the Cats even touched Lock was after he had released the football.
Lock connected on scoring strikes of 50, 54 and 75 yards, each time pulling the Tigers from what seemed like the bring of elimination. Maddening, because it was something Stoops knew to expect. “They put that stress on you,” he said.
That’s the proper word, one Stoops uses a lot to describe the effect of a tactic employed by the opposing team. And it was stress shared by thousands of fans, who watched the Wildcats jump out to an early 13-0 lead, which should have been 21-0. Misfires on offense prevented the Cats from turning two possessions into touchdowns instead of field goals.
Still, it looked as though Kentucky would take a mildly stress-free 20-7 lead into the locker room at halftime, thanks to a 71-yard touchdown gallop by Benny Snell. But that’s when Lock cranked up and heaved a 54-yard scoring strike to Emanuel Hall with 40 seconds before recess. Game on.
The Tigers managed to tie the game at 27 after three quarters, which is when Kentucky’s Stephen Johnson unfurled a TD bomb of his own, connecting with Garrett Johnson on a 64-yard catch & run. But three plays later, Lock pressed the button again and fired a 75-yard TD toss. It was tied again at 34.
Over the next eight minutes, the only scoring came on two field goals by Austin MacGinnis, who on this night became Kentucky’s all-time leading scorer. The second gave the Cats a 40-34 lead inside the final 90 seconds – more than enough time for Mizzou’s version of the air raid.
Stoops opted for a field goal try with the ball at the two-yard-line, reasoning (properly) that the Tigers would move the ball downfield quickly. But he wanted them to need to pierce the end zone, instead of forcing overtime with a field goal.
“We know they can go fast and we obviously saw how explosive they can be,” he said. “So I just felt like we had to do it.”
And, as it turns out, he was right. But Kentucky got a huge break in the waning seconds, one that may have saved the game for the Wildcats.
With 21 seconds left, Missouri’s J’Mon Moore caught a pass and was tackled at the Wildcat 27. As Moore jogged back to the line to set up for the next play, Allen apparently tipped the ball out of Moore’s hand. It rolled about eight yards down the field, forcing the umpire to pick it up and, without urgency, set the ball at the line of scrimmage.
Call it luck, call it gamesmanship – whatever, it wasn’t called a dead ball and there was no time put back on the clock, after a delay of 18 seconds.
Incredibly, there was no complaint from the Missouri sideline.
“The ref acted like he didn’t see it,” Moore told reporters. “I don’t have much to say about it.”
“To be honest with you I don’t know,” Allen said to seccountry.com
In his post-game news conference, Stoops said simply, “I don’t know what was going on.” He echoed those comments to Tom Leach before he went on his post-game radio show.
Lock quickly spiked the ball but there were only three seconds left. Allen’s gambit may have cost the Tigers two plays – definitely one, which, as they had shown all night, was all they needed to cover great distances.
The one they did manage at the end was a bust . The Wildcats, who had managed to sack Lock just the one time, were able to collapse the pocket, forcing Lock to throw quickly, and short. His pass died well short of the end zone, and so did Missouri’s hopes of a first SEC victory in what is becoming a nightmare of a season.
As for the Wildcats, they get some time to rest, heal and think about that next victory, which would make them bowl-eligible. The win over Mizzou may have been ugly, but in the rear view mirror, it looks like a work of art.