There was a lot happening in the sports world on Sunday. That’s why the UK-UofL football game was buried well beneath baseball and some NFL news on the late edition of “Sports Center.” The hose-job in Pittsburgh that cost Milwaukee’s C.C. Sabbathia his no-hitter commanded stories, sidebars and enough analysis to where all of us could re-create the play in a stupor.
So after a flurry of incomplete Louisville passes to underscore the plight of the Cardinals’ offense, the actual game “melt” included, of course, Ashton Cobb’s fumble return for a touchdown, and everybody’s favorite – Myron Pryor’s scoop-and-score for the ages.
Finding key plays like those are easy; they’re the ones that end with an official shooting his hands into the air. Often the plays that LEAD to those plays are big, as well, and not too hard to spot.
But in a game like the one we all witnessed on Sunday, it’s the hidden “gems” that usually are part of the untold story, but have every bit as much to do with how the final score came about as the plays you see on the 6 o’clock news. At Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, there were a lot:
1st Quarter, 1:30
Late in the period, the Cardinals put together a 12-play drive, which started on their own 15, stalling on the UK 21, with U of L lining up for a field goal. If ever there was a time to seize momentum and build confidence, it was here. But freshman wide receiver Matt Roark, with his father (ex-Wildcat Ray Gover) watching from the front row, deflected the kick. His blocked field goal left the game scoreless into the second quarter, and the Cards hot, sweaty and unsatisfied.
The Cats caught the Cards off-guard when Mike Hartline found veteran fullback John Conner, who rumbled for 20 yards and a first down. It gave Kentucky instant field position and Wildcat fans a preview of what they might see all year.
2nd Quarter, 12:38
Early in the second period, U of L’s Cory Goettsche, standing near his own goal line, uncorked a 49-yard punt. But Dicky Lyons ripped off a 22-yard return that carried all the way to the Louisville 30, again giving the Cats great field position and setting up an eight-play scoring drive, which included a catch by Lyons, on third-and-14, good for 19 yards.
It was preceded by a dropped pass by sophomore wideout Kyrus Lanxter. But offensive coordinator Joker Phillips didn’t lose faith in his pupil; on third-and-goal from the U of L three, Phillips called for a fade to the right corner of the end zone to Lanxter, who battled the Louisville cornerback but couldn’t pull it in. It’s the same play Andre’ Woodson and Keenan Burton used to perfection on countless occasions. When Hartline and Lanxter hone their on-field, non-verbal communication, that play will be fun again – real fast. The Cats did get a field goal out of the drive.
2nd Quarter, 6:09
The nation, and the 40,000-plus at The Big Slice, saw Cobb scoop and score, recovering a fumble and returning it 28 yards for a touchdown. But what was more difficult to see was the way Pryor blew up the play from the inside. It was Pryor who knocked the ball away from Louisville’s Bilal Powell. Cobb, by his own admission during the post-game radio show, saw his man was merely blocking, so he had a chance to sit back and wait on a chance to make something happen.
2nd Quarter, 2:15
His team in need of something good happening, U of L coach Steve Kragthorpe put his trust in the Cardinals’ offensive line. The Cards had put together another seven-play drive that began after Tim Masthay’s only mistake of the day – his kickoff went out of bounds. The ensuing penalty gave Louisville the ball at the 40 (new rule this year. Last year it would have been at the 35).
The Cardinals faced fourth-and-one at the Kentucky 21. Kragthorpe decided against the field goal try (perhaps because of his first-year kicker) and elected to run the ball. Micah Johnson had other ideas. The junior middle linebacker filled the hole and stoned rusher Brock Bolen, handing the ball back to the Cats. It was, perhaps, Johnson’s most impressive play since his overtime third-down stop of Jacob Hester in the win over LSU, just prior to Braxton Kelley’s game-sealing fourth-down tackle.
3rd Quarter, 4:42
After botching two opportunities, new “pooch” punter Ryan Tydlacka managed to kill a punt at the Louisville one-yard line. The Cards generated another extended drive, moving 12 plays to the UK 48. But on third down, Kelley broke through on one of the few blitzes defensive coordinator Steve Brown needed to call, and sacked quarterback Hunter Cantwell, short-circuiting another UofL scoring effort and further damaging the Cards’ psyche.
4th Quarter, 14:30
Following the safety Hartline surrendered when he intentionally grounded a pass from the end zone, U of L fans, players and coaches had to be thinking, “Here we come.” They trailed only 10-2, momentum again had swung to the home team and the Cats had to kick it away.
In 1999, the Wildcats faced a similar challenge against LSU. The Tigers had forced a safety and Kentucky had to come up with a free kick. Hal Mumme chose to use senior punter Andy Smith, a transfer from Western Kentucky, in his first and only season in a UK uniform.
Smith uncorked his longest punt of the year. It carried to the goal line, burying the Tigers deep in their own territory. It flipped the field, and the momentum. UK went on to one of its six victories in a season that saw them play in their first Music City Bowl.
On Sunday, Masthay worked similar magic from the kicking tee. His booming boot from the 30 came down in the Cardinals’ end zone, resulting in a touchback. Instead of starting from, at worst, their own 40, the Cards were back on their own 20.
Six plays later, U of L had to punt again. Lyons fumbled but Louisville was called for interference and the Cats retained possession. Replays showed the call was “iffy” at best. But UK took advantage, putting together a draining, 11-play drive. Lones Seiber drilled a 25-yard field goal to make it a two-possession game with less than seven minutes remaining.
4th Quarter, 6:26
After Masthay’s ensuing kickoff, Cantwell dropped back in a must-pass situation. Trevard Lindley picked him off as a result of the pressure the UK defensive front delivered. They’d been liberated by Seiber’s field goal, which all but forced the Cardinals to abandon their running game, which had been nearly as ineffective as Kentucky’s.
4th Quarter, 2:27
Nobody who saw this game will forget the sight of big Myron Pryor, rumbling 72 yards for his first career touchdown, actually opening up distance between himself and two pursuers (on legs that earlier had been cramping).
The genesis of the play, though, was the pressure linebacker Johnny Williams had put on Cantwell. The UK coaches tweaked the defensive scheme this fall, at times having Williams line up as a speed-rushing defensive end. Williams shot into the Louisville backfield and raked Cantwell across his passing arm, well before he began his throwing motion. The play was reviewed, with the Cards hoping it would be ruled an incomplete pass. As Pryor doubled over on the sidelines and considered changing his name to “Ralph,” the ruling stood on the field and the Wildcats had finished off their arch-rivals with flair.
Any win is a good win. That’s what coaches always say, publicly and privately – and they believe it. Yes, they see the warts, probably more acutely than we do. But victories, like recruiting, are the lifeblood of any athletic program. The two go hand-in-hand. Better players make more plays. And on Sunday, the Wildcats had more of each. Some were outright highlights, and many were hidden gems.