Wildcats use ground game, career effort by Rodriguez to smash Commodores

Kentucky running back Christopher Rodriguez Jr. (24) dives into the end zone for a touchdown on a 22-yard run against Vanderbilt in the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE -- You knew it. I knew it. Vanderbilt knew it. People on the dance floor at the Wildhorse Saloon knew it.

Kentucky was going to run the football against the Commodores.

And still, the Wildcats put on one of the most powerful displays of sheer ground power since Sherman’s march through Atlanta. Cats 38, ‘Dores 14 doesn’t begin to tell the story.

When is the last time Kentucky was able to turn to backup offensive linemen with a good chunk of time left in the fourth quarter? It happened Saturday afternoon in the Music City. And wasn’t that Walker Wood out there, taking snaps and running the ball for the first time in a blue and white uniform?

All because the Wildcats were able to put that bitter loss to Tennessee behind them and come back on a Vandy team that was feeling good about itself after a scoop-and-score staked the Commodores to a 14-3 lead with a little more than 10 minutes gone in the game.

Their other touchdown came on an impressive, 75-yard march that saw the home team slicing through the visitors as though it were an inter-squad game. But after the Cats fell behind by 11, it was a different brand of football game.

“We settled down,” Mark Stoops said, assessing his team as he left the field at halftime. What the Wildcats settled into was a stingy defense that gave up a total of only 198 yards. It was the fifth consecutive SEC game that UK has limited its opponent to no more than 305 yards. The Cats haven’t done that since 1977 and THAT team finished 10-1.

The offense fell just 43 short of the school record for rushing yards, with a total of 401.

“Aw, that sucks,” Chris Rodriguez said through a wide smile when he heard how close he and his mates had come to shattering the mark. The redshirt freshman finished with a career-high 129 yards and a touchdown on only 15 carries.

“I gotta give it to my offensive line,” Rodriguez said. “Drake (Jackson, redshirt-junior center) and all them dudes – they were killing it.”

That, they were. In fact, UK came within five yards of having three different backs finish in triple-digits. Quarterback Lynn Bowden ran it 17 times for 110 yards, the fourth time he’s eclipsed that mark this season. It ties him with Mike Fanuzzi for most 100-yard rushing games by a quarterback in school history.

And fellow redshirt-freshman Kavosiey Smoke ran 15 times for a career-high 95 yards. He also caught a screen pass on a third-and-26 call. He ran for 28 and a first down.

All of this came against a Vandy defense that figured to attack Kentucky the same way it did LSU – employing a zero-coverage approach, meaning safeties charging up for run support, heavy on the blitzes.

In fact, the Commodores blitzed the Tigers 35 times, reasoning that it was their only hope against the SEC’s top team. It didn’t work; LSU won but still, Vanderbilt posted 38 points on the Bayou Bengals.

The ‘Dores had the one scoring drive against the Wildcats. That was it.

Kentucky kept moving the chains, grinding through the black and gold defense. “We just kept pounding it,” Rodriguez said.

During his four-game trial run last season (the number of games in which a freshman could play and still protect his redshirt status), Rodriguez broke open a run against Murray State that saw him carrying multiple defenders toward the goal line – but he fell short of scoring. He’s been running this season as though he’s intent on that never happening again.

“Ne-Ver,” he said. “That’s what I worked on all summer, finishing extra yards – going down and falling forward for more yards. You saw it today.”

We did. In fact, anyone watching closely saw Rodriguez battling to get into the end zone, having one of his feet knocked out from under him, putting his hand on the ground and basically doing a cartwheel that carried him across the goal line. Alas, he had stepped out of bounds, but it was something you don’t see often, outside of a video game.

He’s making the most of his carries, after spending a bit of time in the Mark Stoops’ Big Blue Dog House earlier this season, for putting the ball on the ground.

“I had a few mess-ups earlier this year and had to overcome ‘em,” he said, “but coach always said, you never know, wait for your moment. That’s what I did. I waited for my number to be called and when it was called… I’m just going to keep playing.”

Because of the victory in Nashville, he and his teammates likely will get to keep playing, on into December for an extra game. At 5-5, they’re a good bet to become bowl-eligible this Saturday with a win over FCS opponent Tennessee-Martin. And of course, they finish the regular season with Louisville, which itself now is bowl-eligible.

“We know what we’ve gotta do to be bowl-eligible,” Rodriguez said, “but we’re just going to keep playing. Be where our feet are. Next team, we’re just going to come out and play.”

And lately that means ground-and-pound, with a healthy dose of defense mixed in. Everybody seems to know it. They just have to try to stop it.



 
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