Taking the field in Commonwealth Stadium for the final time on Senior Night, they got just that, plus a memory that everyone involved will carry with them forever. UK defeated Samford 34-3 on Saturday, getting the win the Wildcats had sought for so long, delivering an impressive all-around performance in the process.
"We played well," senior defensive end Taylor Wyndham said. "We executed what we were supposed to. We were playing the right defense. The offense was moving the ball, they did a really good job out there. It was exciting to get a win, especially when you play like this."
UK snapped an eight-game losing streak against the visiting Bulldogs, dominating from start to finish. Scoring touchdowns on their first two possessions, the Cats jumped out to a 14-0 lead en route to a 31-3 halftime advantage.
"We talked all week how that was going to be a huge thing just to get going fast because the longer you let teams like this hang around, the more confidence they build as the game goes on," senior center Matt Smith said. "We just knew we had to hit them early and hit them hard. I feel like we did that and from there it just took off."
Smith and his fellow offensive linemen got to live a dream in the second half, running the ball on 31 of 34 plays for 189 yards and 6.1 yards per carry. The Cats tallied just a field goal in the second half, but they didn't need any more offense with their big lead and the way the defense was playing. UK held Samford to just 102 yards of total offense, the fewest for a UK opponent since 1996.
"I thought both sides of the ball we won the line of scrimmage, which is important," head coach Joker Phillips said.
As impressive as outgaining Samford 455-102 was, Phillips and his players aren't likely to keep postgame box scores as souvenirs. Prints of the image that captures the way they left the field are a much more likely memento. No matter what is said or written about the group of 19 seniors recognized on Saturday or the Phillips era, no one will ever be able to take that moment away.
Its genesis came with about two minutes left and the outcome well in hand.
Smith and fellow senior offensive lineman Larry Warford were lifted from the lineup after the first play of UK's final drive, embracing coaches and teammates as they left the field. Because of that, they were on the sideline as the Cats ran off the final 5:06 with a bevy of bruising runs by Dyshawn Mobley. They were soaking in their surroundings when Wyndham, their famously bearded classmate, approached them with an idea to carry Phillips off the field.
"He bleeds for this program, he puts everything into it, all his time and effort and I don't think anybody really understands how much he cared for this program if you're not part of this team," Warford said. "To carry him off like that, he just deserves every bit of it."
Smith and Warford were the logical choices to undertake the task because of their size and the instrumental roles they have played in leading a young team through a trying season. Neither needed much convincing.
They knew Phillips would be another story, but they weren't taking no for an answer.
"We were going to force him to get up on our shoulders because that's what he means to us," Warford said. "He's so important in our hearts and he loves this program much. He breathes this, he bleeds it and he's a champion."
Even though he is spending his last weeks as head coach after dedicating more than two decades to building the Kentucky football program, Phillips has been steadfast in his belief that this night not be about him. Another coach might want the spotlight on him as he departs a university that has meant to much to him, but Phillips has deflected it. That's always been his nature. In the end, that was the reason his players wanted to give him his parting moment.
"That's the kind of coach you want, that's looking out for his players and wants his players to win more than he wants to win," Smith said. "He's just such a great guy and he's always been there for us."
There will surely come a time when Phillips looks back on being carried off the field and realizes what it meant to him. But right now, he doesn't even really know what he feels other than gratitude he was able to spend so much time at a place he loves.
"I'm numb to all this," Phillips said. "I'm pretty numb to all of this. I understand it. But it's a numbing feeling that you just realize it's time to go. It's time to go, and I understand that."
His weightless moment behind him, Phillips once again shifted the attention back to his players in the postgame locker room. A few seniors stepped in front of their team to explain what the win means to them, what their Kentucky careers mean to them. Bittersweet is about the best way to describe the scene.
"It was pretty sad because I won't get to step on this field again and none of these guys will get to step on this field again," Warford said. "It was pretty emotional."
The locker room scene was special, but Warford found himself thinking back to carrying his coach. Fans were smiling and cheering from the stands, but he couldn't hear anything else. After Phillips helped mold him into a man, even carrying him at times over four years, Warford was happy to finally be carrying his coach.
"I didn't hear all the cheers," Warford said. "I was just thinking about what just happened and it was my last time on the field. I had my coach on my shoulder. It was just the perfect moment for me."