Gritty Victory Latest Sign of Cats' Resolve
Mark Stoops predicted it all week: Kentucky’s game against Vanderbilt was going to be a battle.
Even though the Wildcats had been mostly dominant in building a 17-3 lead over the Commodores, he doubled down on his prediction at halftime.
“I told the team the second I went in there, before I made the adjustments with the staff, I walked right in and talked to the team while the coaches were meeting, and that's what I told them, that there was no way in heck that it wasn't going to come down to being a close game,” Stoops said. “I knew they would hang in there somehow and make a play, get a turnover, make something happen, and that's what happened.”
True to Stoops’ word, Saturday’s game came down to the wire. The Commodores hung around, using a fumble-return touchdown to cut the lead before driving inside UK’s 10-yard line in the waning moments. In the end, Vandy had a fourth and goal from the 13-yard line.
“I was like, ‘These boys can’t score. These boys can’t score. These boys can’t score,’ ” Denzil Ware said. “I’m trying to go home and have fun and I just wanted to remember this night with a big victory.”
Ware got his wish, as Kyle Shurmur’s pass fell incomplete and UK (3-3, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) came away with a 20-13 win. What the Cats might have lacked in style, they more than made up for in grit and determination.
“I could not be more proud of our team and the victory,” Stoops said. “It was a hard-fought, tough game, just like I said on Monday it would be. And so very, very proud of our team. We overcame a lot of adversity and that's what you have to do. You have to dig down and make plays and win sometimes. I don't really care how it looks.”
On offense, UK couldn’t ever find a rhythm in the passing game, with Stephen Johnson II completing just 10-of-24 passes for 49 yards. Stoops and head coach of the offense Eddie Gran each predicted the junior quarterback will settle in, but the ground game compensated in the meantime.
Four different players – including Johnson himself – rushed at least nine times and for at least 55 yards. Benny Snell Jr. led the bunch with 20 carries for 94 yards, a bulk of which came as UK tried to take the air out of the ball and close the game. The true freshman had eight carries for 44 yards as the Cats bled 6:20 from the clock with a 13-play final drive that resulted in a field goal.
“It’s been good because it’s happened a couple times,” Gran said, referencing the fact that UK has ran effectively in closing out all three of its wins. “Coach talks about the resilience and don’t flinch, you know? Nobody was panicking, nobody was—our kids had a great demeanor on the sideline.”
On defense, UK certainly succeeded in making things ugly for Vandy offensively. The Cats held the Commodores to a mere 282 yards, allowing only two field goals since Vandy’s touchdown came on defense.
The performance was a far cry from the way the Cats started the season. Through two games and a half, UK had allowed 124 points in starting 0-2 and finding itself locked in a 35-35 halftime tie with New Mexico State. In the last three games plus the second half of the NMSU game, UK has allowed just 64 points – 34 scored by No. 1 Alabama and 14 on defensive touchdowns.
“We still have a long way to go,” Stoops said, “but we're getting much better and I appreciate their effort and their attitude and the way they have gone to work and they haven't flinched and they didn't let even this game, they didn't let the negativity, they didn't let the bad breaks—they didn't let anything deter them from getting the victory, any way you slice it.”
In addition to propelling UK to a victory on Saturday, that attitude is what has allowed the Cats to weather the storm of a difficult start to the 2016 season.
“I told them in the locker room, after the Southern Mississippi game, first thing I told them, I grabbed them up – I wanted to see the whites of their eyes – and I told them to stay the course,” Stoops said. “I said, every son of a gun outside of this room right here will be attacking you and me.
“So put your head down, do your job, and go to work. Because there's nowhere to run and there's nowhere to hide. You either man up and get better or you cave.”
Clearly, UK hasn’t caved.
“It just makes us closer,” said Ware, who has had two sacks in each of UK’s two SEC wins. “We had a lot of people doubting us and it just made us closer together as a unit. We want to get the extra work. We want to watch the film. We want to do this. We want to be better. We want to become a contender in this league and the first step is just playing together and trusting one another.”
UK now heads into its bye with three wins in its last four games, a far cry from the two losses in a row the Cats had to start the season. On the other side of it lies the second half of the season, starting with a home date with Mississippi State on Oct. 22.
“We'll give them one more day than usual, they will have Monday off, we'll watch the film and get back to work on Tuesday and we'll work hard to get better this week and we have the bye and then another home game, which will be nice,” Stoops said. “So, we got some good momentum and looking forward to giving these guys a few days off and getting healthy and ready for that last stretch.
Time, as the Cats said all offseason, to finish.