Bowl Eligibility a Big Step, but Finish Line Still Ahead
Kentucky has had to battle to reach the doorstep of bowl eligibility over the course of multiple seasons.
It was only fitting the Wildcats had to overcome a little more adversity to finally cross the threshold.
“I was very thankful to come away with the victory,” Mark Stoops said. “I thought our team really showed their toughness all season and it was evident again tonight. When we needed it, we got physical and the guys played exceptionally well.”
UK needed every bit of that toughness as Austin Peay claimed a 13-0 lead with an interception of Luke Wright – starting in place of the injured Stephen Johnson II – returned for a touchdown on the first play of the second quarter. To that point, the visiting Governors had been dominant.
“I just feel like guys were overly excited,” Jojo Kemp said. “We had to just calm down. Everybody’s juices were flowing, pumped up, excited. We had to just calm down and go back to the basics and do what we do.”
The excitement manifested itself in over-pursuit on defense and costly penalties on both sides, including one that negated a 95-yard Boom Williams touchdown sprint.
Just like in the midst of UK’s 0-2 start to the season, negativity and doubt began to swirl everywhere but the UK sideline. And just like in the way they put their heads down and rallied from a demoralizing first two weeks of the season, the Cats (6-5, 4-4 SEC) never let doubt creep in their minds.
UK scored 49 unanswered points in a 49-13 victory sparked in part by Johnson, who came off the bench and played through a knee injury.
“I know guys, myself put in the work,” said Kemp, who scored two touchdowns. “We’ve been the leaders that we were asked to be. I told you guys we created change here. The culture, the mindset of different individuals. I didn’t have any doubt in my heart. It just feels good to get this win and just take a step. The program definitely took a step forward today.”
That big step led to a big celebration. Leaving the field, Kemp mimed his best bowling roll for every camera in sight. Once in the locker room, the Cats had plenty of fun.
“Loud,” said Boom Williams, who rushed for 47 yards and a touchdown. “Everyone was jumping around, happy. It’s just a good feeling to walk in here and see everybody happy, knowing that all the hard work that we’ve worked for has paid off.”
Though the Cats of course would have preferred to clinch bowl eligibility a week or two earlier, there was something poetic about getting it done the same day 14 seniors who have played such an instrumental role in UK’s turnaround were honored in their final home game.
“I told the team that we talk about toughness and an attitude, every day, and being resilient,” Stoops said. “And this team has showed that. It wouldn't have happened without the great leadership of our seniors and I'm very happy for them. They have been through some ups and some downs.”
Kemp has been a leading face and voice throughout those up and downs, endearing himself to Kentucky fans not long after he became one of the first players to commit to play for Stoops nearly four years ago. Along the way, he delivered one of the signature moments in carrying UK to victory over South Carolina as a sophomore and then asking “Why not us?” in an ESPN interview in the middle of the ensuing on-field celebration.
Of course, that Kentucky team would get stuck on five wins, as would the one that followed it. Not these Wildcats though.
“I’m filled with joy and excitement just knowing that I affected so many people in this community, this state,” Kemp said. “I told you before I wanted to come here and change the culture around. Kentucky football, I wanted to change the outlook on Kentucky football. Just knowing that we took a step forward, it’s just an awesome feeling.”
Stoops felt the same way. He was living out his “don’t flinch” motto in maintaining his composure in his postgame press conference, but didn’t deny that was easy. He’s invested too many long days and nights for this not to mean something special to him.
“It's hard to control the emotions right now,” Stoops said. “It is. Because I'm very thankful and appreciative of this team, the administration, our fans, the people that sat out there tonight and it was cold, nasty day and stuck with us through the good times and the bad. And I greatly appreciate everybody.
“I said it day one and I continue to say it, that it's going to take all of us to take this program to new heights.”
He spoke in present tense for a reason. Reaching bowl eligibility is a milestone, not an endpoint, in the development of Kentucky football.
“I think it's a big step in the culture change,” Stoops said. “And we want this to be the norm to go to bowl games and win over six games and that's our plan. … So, I've been just proud of the guys just really, just grinding it out and listening, and taking the coaching, taking the counseling, and a lot of the hard work that they do in the offseason is starting to pay off.”