UK’s Upset of Louisville a Lesson in Finish

Starting last winter, Kentucky’s mantra has always been “Finish.”

In the midst of a hard-fought game against the Wildcats’ archrivals, that wasn’t about to change.

“That’s the last thing I told them as we left the locker room at halftime,” Mark Stoops said. “ ‘That’s what we talked about. And let’s man up and do that. Let’s finish strong.’ Every guy in there, every person in the locker room believed that. Win or lose, we were gonna lay it on the line.”

Lay it on the line is exactly what the Cats did at Louisville on Saturday. And this time UK (7-5) got the outcome it’s been working for all along with a 41-38 upset of the 11th-ranked Cardinals (9-3). 

“It’s a big win,” linebacker Courtney Love said. “This is the state of Kentucky and it’s two teams battling. A nationally ranked opponent and they’re our rival, so it was just huge for us to get this win and go into this bowl season with momentum. It changes this program, I think, and I love Kentucky and I love everything about it.”

There was plenty to love this Saturday afternoon, and nothing more than the play of Stephen Johnson II.

Less than a year ago, Johnson was unknown to all Kentucky fans, a junior-college quarterback at the College of the Desert searching for a Division-I landing spot. Three months ago he was the backup to Drew Barker, awaiting an opportunity. Two months ago, he was guiding a Wildcat resurgence, but still a work in progress making plenty of mistakes.

On Saturday, he went toe to toe with Lamar Jackson – the Heisman Trophy frontrunner – and arguably outplayed him.

“I think myself, I think I’ve improved a lot,” Johnson said. “I know that first snap in Florida, I was extremely nervous. But now, I think I’ve calmed down a little bit and really trust in the offense a little bit more.”

Johnson completed 16-of-27 passes for 338 yards and three touchdowns. He was also UK’s leading rusher with 83 yards and his only turnover was an interception on a play that left Stoops and the UK fans in attendance pleading for a pass-interference penalty.

“He’s got a great demeanor,” head coach of the offense Eddie Gran said. “That’s what I love about him. … He doesn’t get rattled about anything. He doesn’t get overexcited when things are going good. It’s just back to the next series, next play. You love that in a quarterback.”

Johnson is the perfect kind of quarterback to lead a game-winning drive, able to keep a steady hand after Love recovered a fumble by Jackson to give UK the ball at its own 10-yard line with 1:45 left in a tie game. He had a 29-yard completion to Jeff Badet and a 15-yard run for the key plays on the drive, setting up Austin MacGinnis for the try he anticipated as soon as the Cats took possession.

“As soon as we got the fumble, I was like, I’m going to have to kick it,” MacGinnis said. “You gotta put that in your mind. You can’t expect them to get a touchdown and not be ready to kick. As soon as we got that fumble, I knew that my team was going to give me a chance.”

MacGinnis drilled a 47-yarder, sending most people who were wearing blue into hysterics, but not Stoops. His mind was, of course, on finishing.

“You knew you were going to have to come back out,” Stoops said. “Whether he missed it, we were going to have to go play with a dynamic guy like that and we were thinking about the kickoff and what we were going to do.”

UK would indeed close it out, their coach’s steadiness and constant focus on the task at hand being a major reason why. That’s fitting, because those very same things are what guided the Cats’ turnaround from a start to the season that had many doubting what this team could do.

“Dr. (Eli) Capilouto and Mitch Barnhart, in the middle of 0-2 and playing like crap for a half of the third game, didn’t budge for a second,” Stoops said. “I can truthfully say that. When you feel that kind of support, you just put your head down and go to work and control the things you can control and get better.”

The players who have made those improvements and driven a 7-3 finish to the regular season remember Stoops’ resoluteness well.

“Coach Stoops brought us all in the locker room, basically told us it was us against the world at that point,” Johnson said. “So just to be with each other, stay with each other and stay locked into this team. That’s what we did and we’ve shown it the last (10) games.”

There have been big wins through those 10 games, including four of the Southeastern Conference variety, but none of the magnitude of beating a top-15 team on the road to bring the Governor’s Cup back to Lexington.

“I think it’s significant,” Stoops said. “It’s a significant win. Our players deserved it, our fan base did, our administration. Like I said, we poured a lot into this. It’s not easy. So, it’s a giant step in the right direction.”

But again, Stoops is already thinking about what’s next. UK might have finished this game, but the job is not done. To that end, UK is planning preparations for a bowl game and Stoops is hitting the road to recruit at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday.

He might be tired, but Stoops will be happy too.

“I’ll be smiling,” Stoops said. “I’ll be smiling. But I’m taking off tomorrow morning and won’t be back till Friday. We’re hitting the pavement hard. We got to keep getting some good players.”