NASHVILLE -- If you're wondering whether Rich Brooks and the 2007 senior class really turned around the Kentucky football program, just consider how yesterday's Music City Bowl played out.
In many ways, Kentucky came out and resembled the Wildcats of years past. Do some good things, make some big plays, yet find a way to keep things interesting.But that's where the comparisons between this group of Cats and their predecessors stop.
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While UK made things much harder than they needed to be against Florida State, Kentucky did what it's done several times in its historic two-year run and dug deep and found a way to pull out a win.
Kentucky overcame many twists and turns, bizarre penalties and turnovers, and a shorthanded Seminole team that left everything it had on the field to post a 35-28 win before a Music City Bowl record crowd of 68,661.
It marks UK's first back-to-back bowl wins since the 1950 and 1951 seasons, and sends its memorable senior class out as winners.
"We're going to miss this senior class," Brooks said. "They are a very, very special group. I'm just thrilled that we were able to get a win when we, what I would say, did not play our best game. With the mistakes we made, we were still able to overcome those and get a win. I think it speaks volumes of the character that I have on this football team."
It wasn't a masterpiece by any means. Kentucky turned the ball over four times, including one by Rafael Little near the goal line as the Cats were driving to take a 14-0 lead.
And Florida State tied the game at 14 when Tony Carter picked off an errant pass from Andre Woodson and took it 24 yards to the house to tie the game at 14 late in the second quarter.
Still, FSU Coach Bobby Bowden didn't feel comfortable.
"We knew the best was yet to come," he said. "That's the way we felt. Our best chance was to match them somehow. I thought they might run away with the game in the third quarter."
UK appeared on the verge of doing just that. The Cats had a pair of 80-yard drives with the wind at their backs in the third quarter to take a 28-14 lead.
Woodson, who finished 32-for-50 passing for 358 yards and four touchdowns, connected with Little on a 2-yard TD pass, and then Tony Dixon added a 4-yard run to give UK a two-score cushion.
"The third quarter was an absolute key," Brooks said. "The wind was a big factor, and for us to move the ball, control the clock and score some points was huge."
Most of Kentucky's key offensive components were clicking. Besides Woodson's big day, Little added 212 all-purpose yards (28 carries, 152 yards; eight catches, 50 yards; 10 punt-return yards), and three Wildcats had five or more catches. Steve Johnson caught seven passes for 124 yards and two TDs, Keenan Burton had seven catches for 56 yards while playing on an injured knee, and Dicky Lyons Jr. had five catches for 78 yards. Tight end Jacob Tamme also chipped in three receptions for 35 yards and a score.
"That's what what our offense is supposed to be like, minus the turnovers," offensive coordinator Joker Phillips said. "You take away the turnovers, we could have had two or three more scores."
Florida State, who left 36 players at home because of an academic scandal and other issues, wouldn't roll over and play dead.
After Lones Seiber missed a 38-yard field goal at 3:31, FSU closed to within 35-28 on a Drew Weatherford 7-yard TD pass to Greg Carr with 2:14 remaining.
Kentucky then was unable to kill the clock. Dixon lost a fumble, but tight end Jacob Tamme recovered. The Cats then punted, and appeared to have the game wrapped up when Micah Johnson picked off Weatherford at the Florida State 41.
But Johnson fumbled the ball on the runback, and the Seminoles recovered at their own 17.
UK finally exhaled when Weatherford's "Hail Mary" was batted down in the end zone.
"We find ways to make games entertaining," Brooks said before joking, "We're always concerned about concession sales."
Bowden said he liked what he saw from his depleted ball club.
"Our guys just kept coming back," he said. "That's the Seminole spirit that we want and have got to get back at Florida State University if we want to get back on top. I thought I saw a little bit of that today."
But in the end, it was more about Kentucky's willpower. And that was led by its unforgettable senior class.
"I think that's one of the biggest things that has changed about Kentucky football," Tamme said. "No matter what the situation, the score, the down, we believe we are going to win the game. You can't underestimate how important that is. Because four or five years ago, when your program is struggling, it's tough. It's tough for everyone to dig in to the bottom of their soul and believe that we can win games against Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and Florida State. But we do now and we showed it. And it's going to continue."
Date story ran: Tuesday, January 1, 2008