Cats At the Crossroads - Again

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There was a time Kentucky was everybody’s Homecoming Day opponent, and you know why.

Nothing makes the returning alums happy like a Saturday butt-kicking, and that’s exactly what the Gator faithful witnessed in Gainesville. Heck, they didn’t even need “Mr. Two-Bits,” the white-haired former cheerleader who whips UF fans into a frothing frenzy each home game by dusting off a cheer so antiquated, the Spartans borrowed it from the Trojans. Not the guys from Michigan State and Southern Cal, either – the REAL ones.

Florida backers spent their entire afternoon standing up and hollering. The first blocked kick had the same effect as a starter’s pistol. The race was on, and it was sickeningly one-sided. Usain Bolt, surrendering a record in the 100-meter dash as he mugged his way to Olympic gold, would have envied the Gators’ winning margin.

“It just, to me, did not represent what we’ve accomplished and what we are right now,” Brooks said Monday. “It was a throwback, if you will – or a throw up – of days gone by, of days we don’t want to re-visit.”

He could have been talking about a lot of games early in the Rich Brooks Era, but immediately after the flogging in Gainesville, a lot of us on the beat couldn’t stop our thoughts from drifting to one of those Games That Wouldn’t End, on a cool night in Baton Rouge – Oct. 14, 2006. On that night, Death Valley might have been the death of Brooks’ career.

His UK team was 3-3, going into a contest with a club that would go on to become the national champion. The Cats laid enough eggs that night to make an omelet the size of Winchester. By the time they limped back to the dressing room at the end of the night, they were 49-0 losers, wondering what would happen next. If the spiral went in the wrong direction, Brooks almost assuredly would have been ushered, prematurely, into retirement.

But it was on that night Andre’ Woodson stood up in the locker room and told the offensive players to follow him, that he would lead them where they all wanted to go. And he did – he, and several others.

It started the following week, when what loomed ahead on Saturday was an open date. Brooks and his staff vowed to return their team to a more physical brand of football, and they made good on their pledge. The Wildcats won four of their next five, then the Music City Bowl and, well, you know what happened last season.

So here we are again, at a crossroads, the intersection of Missed Opportunity and UK Football History. We’ve been here before.

In fact, we were all standing in this same spot less than a year ago, as the Wildcats squandered a chance to beat Tennessee. The next time that happens, assuming it does, would represent a trip down the history lane of that intersection, only because UK’s record for futility against the Volunteers currently stands as the longest losing streak in Division I football.

The Cats took a wrong turn at this same intersection five years ago, against the Gators, albeit a Ron Zook version which was ripe for an upset. Kentucky had its hands on the fruit, but its labors went unrewarded. Florida escaped Commonwealth Stadium with its winning streak over UK intact; it now stands as the SECOND-longest in D-1 football.

So, which way will the Wildcats go? Last year against Mississippi State, it was the Bulldogs who were facing a similar quandary. As you might recall, they barged into Lexington, tore down the Homecoming floats, stole Kentucky’s lunch money and stormed off with a road victory, one that propelled them into a rare bowl appearance.

But you also know that the Wildcats did the same thing to the Bulldogs, two years ago. That 2006 run of four victories in five games? It began in Starkville, and it included the greatest touchdown catch Yours Truly has ever seen in person, as Dicky Lyons, Jr., made a spectacular, one-handed lunge for a ball flying out of the back of the end zone.

It originally was ruled incomplete, but the Cats got lucky in a truly back-handed way. Woodson had his bell rung after making the throw, and had to leave the game. Backup Curtis Pulley came in but almost immediately became confused by the play call, or the defense – whatever. Kentucky had to burn a timeout and, thanks to those extra 90 seconds, the replay official had a chance to check out Lyons’ catch one more time. Upon further review, it was ruled a touchdown, and the Cats went on to score a road victory. Three more wins would take them to Nashville.

Lyons is gone now, robbed of the second half of his senior season by a devastating knee injury. So are Woodson and five other Wildcats now playing on Sundays. If the Cats are to win this time in Stark-Vegas, somebody new will have to be the one to help them make the right turn, at the crossroads this program knows all too well.

(Former WKYT Sports Manager Dick Gabriel is a 20-year veteran of the UK radio and TV networks. He reports from the sidelines during Wildcat football games on the Big Blue Sports Radio Network. He can be heard each evening from 6-8 p.m.ET on “Sports Nightly,” on 630 WLAP-AM.)

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