UK Finds a Way: Cats Continue to Show Toughness
It was a game Kentucky had every reason to lose.
The Wildcats won it anyway.
“We showed that resiliency, and we showed that toughness, and all that stuff I talked about is starting to pay off in the offseason with being physically tougher, mentally tougher, and being able to bounce back from adversity,” Stoops said. “That's what I'm most proud of.”
In spite of dominating the box score and winning the time-of-possession battle, a series of mistakes and misfortunes left UK trailing Mississippi State in the final seconds. Instead of folding and accepting their fate, the Cats handled that adversity. With Austin MacGinnis’ 51-yard field goal going through the uprights as time expired, UK took down the Bulldogs for the first time since 2009, 40-38.
“Tears of joy,” said freshman running back Benny Snell Jr., who ran for 128 yards and a touchdown. “I just couldn’t believe it. I was just so happy we were able to finish through.”
There were moments where it didn’t seem like that would happen.
When UK was leading 34-24 and driving inside the MSU 10-yard line with less than 10 minutes left and Stephen Johnson II’s fumble was returned for a touchdown, a distinct feeling of “here we go again” swept over Commonwealth Stadium.
When Mississippi State punctuated a long drive with a touchdown that put the Bulldogs ahead 38-37 with 1:09 left, the feeling really took root.
When a flag didn’t come out on Johnson scramble that the entire UK sideline thought should have drawn a horse-collar penalty, some in the stands were likely resigned to their team’s fate.
When a would-be game-winning touchdown fell through the hands of Dorian Baker with nine seconds left, all hoped seemed lost.
Not on the UK sideline though. Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran dialed up the perfect call, Johnson delivered a strike and Jeff Badet capped a seven-catch, 139-yard performance.
“It’s a designed play,” Johnson said. “He’s supposed to run an 18-yard dig, so I knew where he was going to be. I knew he was going to run his route to perfection, catch the ball. He did it all game. I’m just glad he did it.”
Set up for a long field-goal try, MacGinnis delivered and sent Commonwealth into a frenzy.
“I just had my faith in my technique and trusted it,” MacGinnis said. “Thank God the ball went in.”
Faith was the first thing that came to mind for Gran as he reflected on the win as well. Faith and a genuine sense of joy that hard work is paying off.
“You know what?” Gran said. “There’s a greater plan and a greater plan for this team. And this team is awesome and I’m so happy for them. I’m happy for this program. (For) Mark and what he’s done and the culture. To win games like that and how we’ve won this year is huge.”
The win, as Gran referenced, is UK’s fourth in five games. The Cats have now won three straight home Southeastern Conference games to move to 4-3 on the season and 3-2 in league play, good for second in the SEC East. The wins have all come by seven points or fewer.
“I know it didn't go how we wanted it to all the time, but I really felt very well-prepared for this game. I felt like our players were,” Stoops said. “I felt like our coaches were, and I think they did a heck of a job. We didn't always execute to perfection. We seemed to like putting some drama in things, but we were really playing some good football and turned it and had a chance to really separate ourselves.”
But they didn’t. That, in Gran’s mind, is first on UK’s to-do list leading up to a trip to Missouri.
“We gotta take the next step offensively for sure,” Gran said. “We’ve gotta learn to where we can finish the game, where we can all breathe. And we should have been breathing tonight and we didn’t. We gotta get that fixed.”
Before the Cats go to work on that, they’re going to enjoy this win. They’ll do it with a lot of pride in the team toughness they’ve built in the wake of an 0-2 start.
“It shows that we got finish, that we got fight,” Snell said. “We’re not going to quit. That’s just all we got. Stoops, he just drives it in us every day: We gotta finish. And that’s what we did.”
“I think it really shows that we can do anything, basically,” Johnson said. “That we can win on all sides of the ball. Offense, defense and obviously our special teams. Going into the next week, I think we can do anything we put our minds to.”
Stoops believes the same.
“I think it gives us an opportunity to take it to the next step,” Stoops said. “We'll see what we do with it. We'll challenge our team. I just did right there about -- you know, I'm so proud of them, and I love them, and I loved coaching them throughout this whole game and throughout the whole season. We play early next week, and you know, it's about sacrificing this week, getting home, getting some rest and let's get back to work.”