MEMPHIS — The University of Kentucky knew it would need a big lift from its defense in order to win the AutoZone Liberty Bowl against East Carolina.
The Wildcat defenders played the first half like their minds were still on Beale Street. But when the game was on the line, they won the game not only once, but twice.
Two plays after what appeared to be a go-ahead, 17-yard fumble return for a touchdown by Micah Johnson was overturned by a replay judge, defensive end Ventrell Jenkins scooped up another fumble and ran it 56 yards for a score with 3:02 remaining.
The Wildcats then forced ECU to punt with 2:27 left, ran out the clock behind senior running back Tony Dixon, and headed off to celebrate a 25-19 victory in front of a crowd of 56,251.
The win lifted Kentucky's record to 7-6 and gave it bowl wins in three consecutive seasons for the first time in school history.
"It wasn't the Sugar Bowl or the Cotton Bowl, or anything like Bear Bryant did at Alabama, but it is a very significant win for this football team," UK Coach Rich Brooks said. "What I'm more proud of is the way we did it."
The game turned on a bizarre three-play stretch that began at the 4:40 mark. East Carolina quarterback Patrick Pinkney lost the ball as he was taken down from behind by Jeremy Jarmon, and Johnson recovered at the 17 and raced into the end zone. But UK's mojo was short-lived, as replay officials ruled that Pinkney's knee was down before the ball came out. The Pirates appeared to be headed for a game-winning drive when Pinkney hooked up with Davon Drew on the next play for a 40-yard gain to the UK 44.
"Football is an emotional roller coaster," Johnson said. "That's one of the great things about it. You can go from a gigantic high to a big-time low in a split second."
In the past, when Kentucky football went from high to low, the stay on the low end lasted awhile. But the UK defenders had one more big play in them. Senior defensive tackle Myron Pryor stripped the ball from Norman Whitley, and then Jenkins did his best Earl Campbell impersonation: He raced down the right sideline, stiff-armed a charging Pinkney that sent the quarterback's mouthpiece flying and high-stepped over him on his way to the end zone.
"Two moves in one: a stiff-arm and a high step," Jenkins said. "Next thing I know I'm in the end zone with my teammates on top of me. It felt great."
The UK defense fought adversity all game. First it had to overcome a sluggish start that included some serious tackling issues.
ECU's Drew caught a short pass in the flat, broke through a tackle attempt from Trevard Lindley and rumbled to the Kentucky 9-yard line to set up a 22-yard Ben Hartman field goal to give the Pirates a 3-0 lead at the 5:24 mark of the first quarter.
Missed tackles also contributed to the Pirates' first touchdown. J.R. Rogers broke through a pair on a 25-yard run and Brandon Simmons escaped several UK defenders for a 28-yard TD run that put ECU up 10-0 at the 14:14 mark of the second quarter.
Lones Seiber's 21-yard field goal got UK to within 10-3, but the momentum was short-lived. On ECU's next play from scrimmage, Jarmon had the angle on a sack but missed Pinkney. Pinkney then rolled right, and cornerback Shomari Moore came up in run support, leaving Darryl Freeney wide open on the right sideline. Pinkney floated a perfect pass that Freeney took 80 yards for a score. The extra point was blocked, but the Pirates still had a 16-3 lead they took to halftime.
A steaming Brooks lit into his team during the intermission.
"I can't repeat (what was said) in a mixed audience," Brooks said. "I kind of lost it, and then I got my bearings a little bit and said what we needed to do was go out and play the kind of football we knew we were capable of playing."
UK's renewed energy was evident on the opening kickoff, as David Jones took it up the right sideline 99 yards for a touchdown. Jones was moved to the kickoff team to replace Winston Guy, who mishandled a pair of earlier kickoffs.
"That lit a little fire under us," Brooks said.
The UK defense forced a three-and-out after Tim Masthay pinned ECU on its 2-yard line with a 49-yard punt. Gene McCaskill returned the ensuing punt to the ECU 26, and Kentucky tied the game at 16 when Kyrus Lanxter took a short pass in the right flat from Hartline, made a move past a defender and cut toward the middle for a 19-yard score with 8:13 left in the third quarter.
The teams exchanged field goals for a 19-19 deadlock, and the Cats had a couple more curves thrown their way: A roughing-the-punter penalty kept an ECU drive alive, and a holding penalty negated a Sam Maxwell interception in the fourth quarter.
But the Wildcats didn't flinch, and it was the senior class — one that arrived in Lexington when things looked bleak — that made the difference: Jenkins with the fumble recovery; Pryor with the strip; Jones with the kickoff return; Braxton Kelley with a team-high eight tackles.
And you can't forget Dixon, who ran for 89 tough yards and picked up two pivotal first downs that sealed the game.
"It's a true testament to the character of these kids," UK defensive coordinator Steve Brown said. "If these guys had any less character, all the things that happened to us would have crumbled our house. But they stayed resilient, never hung their heads, and found a way to win the ball game."