MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) - Bear Bryant's brief and successful tenure
as Kentucky football coach hasn't been matched since his departure
55 years ago.
The Wildcats have occasionally reached a bowl or two in the
decades that followed, but never three straight. That was territory
only Bear's boys reached.
Wildcats coach Rich Brooks has already matched Bryant by leading
Kentucky (6-6) to three straight postseason games. With a victory
against East Carolina (9-4) in the Liberty Bowl on Friday, Kentucky
will have three consecutive bowl victories for the first time.
Fittingly, the Wildcats will take a stab at program history in
the Liberty Bowl, where Bryant coached Alabama four times -
including the bowl's inaugural game 50 years ago and the final game
of his great career in 1982.
"There are not a lot of bowl games that have been around 50
years," Brooks said. "It has great history. It has great teams
that have played, great coaches that have been in it, great players
that have been in it."
For the last two years, a Southeastern Conference also-ran has
defeated the Conference USA champion in Memphis, but Brooks is the
first to acknowledge his Wildcats are the underdogs in this one.
East Carolina, appearing in its third consecutive bowl and its
fifth since 2000, is hardly intimidated by major conference foes,
having knocked off Virginia Tech and West Virginia and lost
narrowly to North Carolina State.
"We just want to prove we're the same team at the end of the
year that started the season," Pirates coach Skip Holtz said.
Kentucky just wants to prove it's not the same team that
finished the SEC season in a three-game tailspin, including a
blowout loss to Tennessee in the season finale.
This isn't the high-octane Kentucky passing offense that won the
last two Music City Bowls behind the Wildcats' record-setting
former quarterback, Andre Woodson. This team looks nothing like the
2007 Wildcats but a lot like, well, the 2008 Pirates.
Both programs thrive on defense, relying on turnovers to get the
ball in prime field position and star-studded defensive lines to
pressure the opposing quarterback.
Junior C.J. Wilson, East Carolina's all-Conference USA defensive
end, ranks 12th in the country among active players in sacks per
game and has racked up nearly half of his 21½ career sacks this
season. On the other side, senior Zack Slate has played a key
complimentary role, getting to the quarterback five times this
That pressure has led to hasty passes, and the Pirates have
capitalized on those with 21 interceptions - including five against
Tulsa in the Conference USA championship game.
Wilson and Slate say their motto has been to outplay the other
team's defense, and considering Kentucky's athletes there, that's
no easy task.
"We've got to match their level of intensity and add some more
to it," Slate said. "It'll be, 'Grit your teeth. Let's go bump
If the matchup is defense against defense, Kentucky defensive
end Jeremy Jarmon - a Memphis native - doesn't seem inclined to
want to lose that battle. Jarmon lobbied hard to play in the
Liberty Bowl and hurried back from arthroscopic knee surgery to
make sure he could suit up.
"I knew that I would play in this game," he said. "My surgery
wasn't very serious. It has been just a matter of being patient,
waiting for my body to heal itself."
Jarmon isn't the only Wildcat banged up. Many standouts remain
sidelined by injury, including running back Derrick Locke and top
receiver Dicky Lyons Jr. (who made the trip and won the Beale
Street Elvis impersonation contest despite being unable to play).
Another late-season injury to freshman speedster quarterback
Randall Cobb means Mike Hartline has regained the starting job he
lost eight games in.
Like Hartline, East Carolina quarterback Ryan Pinkney bounced
back from a midseason benching but has impressed since, throwing
for 2,379 yards and 11 TDs and running for another.
"It's human nature to feel kind of down," Pinkney said. "But
you can't be selfish if you weren't getting the job done. I knew if
I got my chance, my teammates were counting on me."