NASHVILLE — Neither Derrick Locke nor Randall Cobb is very big, and both have spent a good portion of the year beaten up from carrying such a heavy workload for the Kentucky offense.
The duo took even more body blows Saturday at Vanderbilt but, with the Wildcats' season on the line, Locke and Cobb had more than enough to land the knockout blows that led to a 24-13 win and bowl eligibility for the fourth consecutive season.
Locke carried 25 times for 144 yards, including the game-clinching score in the fourth quarter. Cobb, who played with a small splint on his sprained left thumb, carried 14 times for 99 yards and two touchdowns. And Locke was also responsible for the game's biggest passing play, a 41-yarder to Morgan Newton on a halfback pass that set up UK's first score.
Kentucky Coach Rich Brooks called the play of Locke and Cobb "amazing."
"They're warriors," UK head coach for offense Joker Phillips said. "They're unbelievable players with the heart of a lion. We're just happy to have those two guys."
Phillips said he saw Cobb waving off attempts at substitutions at various points.
"I'm not coming out," Cobb said. "I don't want to come out. I'm going to give everything I've got. If you've got to carry me off the field, that's what I want. That's how I'm always going to be, and I'm always going to bleed blue like I have been."
Locke and Cobb got to marinate on the sideline against Eastern Kentucky last Saturday because they had to be ready to go for the Cats to have a shot down the stretch.
Their contributions on the ground were part of a 308-yard rushing performance by Kentucky, the most since it ran for 355 against Indiana in 2004.
That helped UK overcome an extremely subpar showing in the passing game.
Newton started and went most of the way, finishing 4-of-7 for 40 yards and an interception. Mike Hartline, who missed the previous four games with a knee injury, was largely ineffective, going 2-of-6 for 10 yards and a pick.
"I don't want to hype us up but, when (Cobb) is out and I'm out, the offense is totally not the same," Locke said. "Everybody knows what kind of determination that he has. When he's hurt, he plays. When I'm hurt, I battle through it. If you're trying to win, you've got to do things like that."
Kentucky went to a little trickery out of the Wildcat formation to score on its second series. Cobb gained 18 yards on a keeper, then took the shotgun handoff and handed to Locke, who was coming from the left side. Locke rolled right and hit a wide-open Newton downfield for a 41-yard gain to the Vanderbilt 21. Cobb took it around the right side for a touchdown on the next play to give the Cats a 7-0 lead at the eight-minute mark of the first quarter.
But Vanderbilt slowly took control the rest of the half. Hartline's interception set up a Ryan Fowler 47-yard field goal, his second of the game, to trim the UK advantage to 7-6 with 10:07 left in the second quarter. After Lones Seiber's 36-yard field goal gave UK a 10-6 lead with 6:16 left in the second quarter, Newton was picked off by Myron Lewis at the UK 20. Vanderbilt receiver John Cole, a Somerset native, then overcame tight coverage by Kentucky cornerback Trevard Lindley to haul in a spectacular 21-yard TD. Cole bobbled the ball before coming down with it in the right corner of the end zone. The extra point gave the Commodores a 13-10 lead at halftime.
With thoughts of the season slipping away, Brooks issued a mandate to his defense in the locker room.
"I told them we had to shut them out (in the second half)," Brooks said. "Plain and simple."
Steve Brown's unit obliged, holding the Commodores to 31 yards of offense, one first down, and 0-for-5 on third-down conversions over the final two quarters.
"We knew we had to stop the run because everybody was talking about how poor we are at doing it," Brown said. "Then it was on our shoulders to get off the field, and we responded."
The UK offense got things rolling with an impressive drive to start the third quarter led by, of course, Locke and Cobb. Locke had a 22-yard run to the Vanderbilt 11, and Cobb took it in for a 3-yard score to cap a 10-play, 75-yard drive and take a 17-13 lead for the Cats.
Phillips noted the difference between that drive and how the offense fumbled early on its first possession of the second half in a 31-24 loss to Mississippi State two weeks ago.
"We took the ball and scored, and that got us momentum," Phillips said Saturday. "Coming out of the locker room is big, especially when you defer the kick at the beginning of the game and take the ball the second half. You've got to be able to take advantage of that, and we did."
The Wildcats put the game away in the fourth quarter thanks to a rare big play in the passing game. Facing a third-and-6 at the Vanderbilt 39, Newton hit freshman La'Rod King on a perfect quick slant over the middle, and King took it to the Vanderbilt 11. Locke scored two plays later to give Kentucky a 24-13 cushion with 5:08 remaining.
"It was a freshman-to-freshman line shot, a rifle shot, and a heck of a catch, and (King) just broke some tackles and kept on chugging," Brooks said about the big third-down pass. "I thought the last 30 minutes was some of the best football we've played in a long time. Defensively, we just didn't give them anything, and certainly the offense ran the ball very well and converted and threw it when we had to."
The bowl-eligible Cats close the season with games at Georgia this Saturday and at home against Tennessee on Nov. 28.
"Our work is not done by a long shot," Brooks said. "We have two difficult games left, and we want to ensure ourselves of a little better pecking order."