Mark Stoops knew what he’d be doing for the last few hours of the late Saturday night. His team had just dispatched Vanderbilt, as expected, but it was by a most unexpected score: 14-7. Turnovers, a stubborn Vandy defense, brutally cold winds – they all played a role in a final score that no doubt raised more than a few eyebrows when it flashed across the country.
Stoops says, it’s that time of year.
“It’s all across college football,” he told Tom Leach in his post-game radio remarks. “I’m going to walk out of here tonight and I’m sure I’ll be sipping on a bourbon later on and I’ll be looking at the ticker and I’ll see some weird scores. I don’t know who it is or what’s going on, but I can promise you – there’s some funky things going on.”
How’s this for funky: It’s the third week in October and the Wildcats are bowl-eligible. Not to mention the fact that they’re tied for first place in the Southeastern Conference East division. And they’re one victory away from a showdown with the Georgia Bulldogs.
Benny Snell did heroic work on UK’s game-clinching touchdown drive, carrying 10 times for 74 yards and the go-ahead score. But it was, once again, the Kentucky defense that locked it up, Josh Allen stripping Commodores’ QB Kyle Shurmur of the football in the closing seconds, fellow senior Mike Edwards falling on it to ice a game played, fittingly, in icy conditions. Nobody seemed to mind at that moment.
At this time last season, Allen was melting into the background. After making six sacks in the first half of 2017, he would add merely a half-sack from then on. That fact alone was one of the statistical kicks in the rear end that sent him back to college football and away from the NFL Draft.
“Like I said before, I came back for situations like this because I have a lot to prove,” Allen said. “Last year during the second half, my play dropped and I told myself I was coming back this year and I wanted to increase my play and to be more effective and be more of a big play maker and that’s what I’m going to continue to do.”
Allen has become a one-man SEC wrecking crew. He rang up two more sacks (eight for the season) against an offensive line that had kept its QB upright almost all year. Schurmur had been sacked only seven times before Saturday night. He went down officially four times against the Wildcats and that number would have been nearly doubled, had he not been so effective at getting rid of the ball under pressure. In fact, early in the game Kentucky forced an intentional grounding call against Shurmur that short-circuited a Vandy drive.
On this night when points were scarce, the wind batting away field goal tries by both teams, it came down to Allen and his defensive mates. The Commodores were threatening, deep in Wildcat territory, looking to snap a 7-7 deadlock. Figuring his team needed a TD and not a field goal, Vandy coach Derek Mason eschewed the three and went for it on fourth-and-two at the 16.
The Cats blew it up.
Noseguard Quinton Bohanna ruptured the play from the start, driving Vandy center Bruno Reagan into the backfield, knocking tailback Jamauri Wakefield off balance, loosening his grip on the football. Linebacker Kash Daniel came flying around from left end, throwing himself at Wakefield. Daniel had just re-entered the game after being treated on the sideline for an injury to his left hand that had him wincing in pain for the rest of the night.
No matter. He used his right hand to help knock the ball away. Bohanna fell on it at the Kentucky 20.
That’s when Snell went to work. Twelve plays later, the Cats had the lead. And after one more change of possessions, the UK defense put another notch on whatever it is defenses use to remember things. Allen sacked Shurmur, stripping him of the ball with senior safety Mike Edwards recovering.
The Wildcats ran out the remaining 1:04 and claimed victory by a most unlikely score. Stoops couldn’t care less. “I’m never going to apologize for a victory,” he said. Nor should he. “You can’t apologize for being 6-1.”
They got there, without apologies, because of a running back the nation has finally embraced. Snell has become a household name. But those same houses need to recognize a Kentucky defense that is elbowing its way into the UK record book as one of the all-time greats.
Through seven games, the Wildcats have given up a mere 90 points. That’s the fewest at this point in the season since 1955, when a guy named Bryant prowled their sideline, growing like a Bear. Only two teams have scored as many as 20 points against the Cats: Texas A&M (in overtime) and, believe it or not, Central Michigan in the season opener.
“I love the way the defense battled all night,” Stoops said.
And then he went off to pour a bourbon and study scores on the ticker. It would show another win for Kentucky – a team with a share of first in the SEC East, now knocking on the door of college football’s Top 10.
How’s that for funky?