MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) - Ventrell Jenkins barreled his 285-pound
frame 56 yards with the ball in his arm, but it would take some
improvisation to reach the end zone and help Kentucky achieve
"I saw the quarterback coming and I knew I had to outrun him,"
the Wildcats' defensive end said. "I did two moves in one - a
stiff arm and a high step, and the next thing I know, I was lying
in the end zone with my team on top of me."
Who can blame them? This wasn't your garden-variety, go-ahead
fumble return by a lineman.
No, this one gave Kentucky a 25-19 win over East Carolina in the
Liberty Bowl on Friday, and gave the Wildcats a third straight
postseason victory - a distinction not even Bear Bryant's teams
were able to achieve decades earlier.
"I know it wasn't the Sugar Bowl or the Cotton Bowl like Bear
Bryant, but it is significant," Kentucky coach Rich Brooks said.
"I'm very proud of these young men, the whole group of seniors.
They accomplished something historic."
Jenkins was an unpredictable MVP after two straight Music City
Bowl wins in which Kentucky's former record-setting quarterback
Andre Woodson led the way.
Kentucky (7-6) never led in this one until the fourth quarter,
when fellow lineman Myron Pryor, who had his own 72-yard fumble
return TD earlier this year, forced a fumble with about 3 minutes
left. In the scramble for the loose ball, Jenkins came up with it
and rumbled down the right sideline untouched.
Lones Seiber's extra point attempt was blocked - the third
blocked extra point of the game and second off Seiber's foot.
That gave East Carolina (9-5) plenty of time to drive for the
win, but the ensuing kickoff was downed at the 1. The Pirates wound
up punting four plays later, and Kentucky picked up a first down
before running out the clock.
"I told our guys, 'We only need seven points,"' East Carolina
coach Skip Holtz said. "I thought we'd find a way, but Kentucky
did a nice job."
Coming off its first Conference USA championship, East Carolina
jumped to a 16-3 halftime lead before failing in its attempt to win
a third game this season against a team from a BCS conference. It
had already defeated West Virginia and ACC champion Virginia Tech.
Moments before Jenkins' heroics, it appeared Kentucky might get
the go-ahead score with another fumble return - albeit not nearly
as long - by linebacker Micah Johnson. However, instant replay
determined East Carolina quarterback Patrick Pinkney was sacked on
the play by Memphis native Jeremy Jarmon, so the Pirates retained
Even before that, the Wildcats' defense missed another chance at
a game-breaking play in the fourth quarter when Sam Maxwell's
interception deep in East Carolina territory was negated by a
holding penalty on teammate Winston Guy.
Although Kentucky's defensive stars were outplayed in the first
half, they saved their best for when it counted.
"We only won three games my first year," said senior defensive
captain Braxton Kelley. "It means a lot to me to know we rose from
the bottom to the top."
Bryant, who took his Alabama teams to four Liberty Bowls -
including the inaugural game 50 years ago and the final game of his
career in 1982 - was the only other Wildcats coach to lead the
program to three straight bowl games. Unlike Brooks, Bryant only
won two of them.
Kentucky saved virtually all its magic for the second half, in
every aspect of the game, and it started when David Jones took the
opening kickoff for a Liberty Bowl-record 99-yard TD.
"After I scored that touchdown, it was like everything swung
our way and came into place," Jones said. "It put a big spark in
the whole team and got us going."
Minutes later, quarterback Mike Hartline, starting for injured
freshman Randall Cobb, gave Kentucky its lone offensive TD when he
hit Kyrus Lanxter on a crossing pattern for a 19-yard touchdown
that tied the game 16-all midway through the third quarter.
Hartline completed 19 of 31 passes for 204 yards and one
interception. Brooks said he had been sick with the flu and praised
Pinkney finished 18-of-36 for 297 yards for East Carolina, most
of it going to Davon Drew and Darryl Freeney. Drew caught five
passes for 120 yards, and Freeney had five catches for 112 yards
and a touchdown.
"I felt like we came out and competed, but we were unable to
get the job done," Drew said.
Trevard Lindley, elected the Wildcats' team MVP, hyperextended
his elbow while deflecting a pass in the end zone. The cornerback,
who is considering leaving college a year early for the NFL, said
afterward that he hadn't yet made a decision but doubted the injury
would affect it.
While acknowledging his team's postseason accomplishment,
Brooks, who has helped turn around the longtime Southeastern
Conference bottom-feeder, said he has loftier goals for the future.
"We still aren't where we want to be," Brooks said.
"Seven-and-six is not what we want to accomplish, but the last 30
minutes was about as beautiful of football that I have ever seen."
Kentucky 0 3 13 9-25
East Carolina 3 13 3 0-19
ECU-FG Hartman 22, 5:24.
ECU-B.Simmons 28 run (Hartman kick), 14:14.
Ky-FG Seiber 21, 8:59.
ECU-Freeney 80 pass from Pinkney (kick blocked), 8:47.
Ky-D.Jones 99 kickoff return (kick blocked), 14:48.
Ky-Lanxter 19 pass from Hartline (Seiber kick), 8:13.
ECU-FG Hartman 43, :06.
Ky-FG Seiber 34, 14:07.
Ky-Jenkins 56 fumble return (kick blocked), 3:02.
First downs 16 17
Rushes-yards 37-106 31-101
Passing 204 296
Comp-Att-Int 19-31-1 18-36-0
Return Yards 19 16
Punts-Avg. 6-41.8 8-47.8
Fumbles-Lost 1-0 2-1
Penalties-Yards 4-35 4-17
Time of Possession 30:43 29:17
RUSHING-Kentucky, Dixon 28-89, A.Smith 5-28, Conner 1-1,
Hartline 3-(minus 12). East Carolina, B.Simmons 10-44, Whitley 7-31,
Rogers 3-23, Bowman 1-3, Pinkney 10-0.
PASSING-Kentucky, Hartline 19-31-1-204. East Carolina,
RECEIVING-Kentucky, Lanxter 5-46, McCaskill 3-64, Dixon 3-17,
A.Smith 3-11, Adeyemi 2-31, Grinter 1-16, Drake 1-15, Conner 1-4.
East Carolina, Drew 5-120, Freeney 5-112, B.Simmons 3-23, Bowman 2-20,
Womack 1-15, Gidrey 1-4, Rogers 1-2.