Story published: Saturday, December 30, 2006
NASHVILLE -- As the Kentucky football team came out of the tunnel and onto LP Field yesterday, offensive coordinator Joker Phillips made an observation.
"I looked at (secondary coach) Steve Brown and said, 'We've come a long way,'" Phillips said. "We don't even look like the same team hitting the field." Plenty of people still had doubts about whether this Kentucky team really had changed, but Coach Rich Brooks and his Wildcats put those questions to bed with an impressive 28-20 Music City Bowl win over Clemson.
It was a statement game that put an exclamation point on Brooks' rebuilding job at UK, and bearing witness were the Tigers, a top-tier program from the Atlantic Coast Conference, a national television audience, and a Music City Bowl record crowd of 68,024 that was dominated by Cats fans.
It was Kentucky's first bowl win since 1984 and left it with an 8-5 record, which is the second-most wins for a UK team in the past 29 seasons.
That's a long way removed from Brooks' first three seasons in Lexington when the Cats were fighting their way through NCAA probation and limping through 25 losses in 34 games.
"I can't tell you how proud I am of these young men sitting next to me," Brooks said at his post-game news conference. "The guys in the locker room, with what they have overcome, what they have accomplished, it's almost beyond me to being able to explain it. I'm not a very bright guy, so it takes more words than I can explain how emotional I am about what they have accomplished."
It wasn't a thing of beauty, but not many of UK's eight wins were. It had its share of nervous moments, as most of UK's eight wins did.
The Wildcats won the game with the same blueprint they used most of the season: an extremely efficient passing game and an opportunistic, turnover-forcing defense.
UK took the opening kickoff and marched 62 yards in 12 plays, resulting in a 1-yard run by freshman Micah Johnson to take a 7-0 lead at the 11:04 mark.
Clemson drove into field-goal range on its first possession, but kicker Jad Dean was wide right on a 38-yard attempt. Dean missed a 28-yarder on the Tigers' next drive.
The second quarter was as bizarre a 15-minute stretch as you'll find in a college football game.
The Tigers used a blocked punt to set up their first touchdown, a 32-yard pass from Will Proctor to tight end Durrell Berry. However, backup kicker John Early missed the extra point, leaving UK with a 7-6 lead midway through the second quarter.
Then came a flurry of four turnovers in seven plays.
UK running back Rafael Little fumbled at his own 19. Clemson went for six on the very next play, but Trevard Lindley made a great play on the ball and picked off Proctor in the back of the end zone while keeping his feet inbounds.
UK tight end Jacob Tamme fumbled three plays later, but Clemson gave the ball right back when Lindley recovered a fumble by Chansi Stuckey.
"I didn't think we played very smart," Clemson Coach Tommy Bowden said. "Too many turnovers and penalties in the red zone."
UK, which had forced 28 turnovers and was fifth in the nation in turnover margin at plus-13, had four more takeaways yesterday.
"If we hadn't done that (force turnovers) all year we wouldn't be here, and we wouldn't be talking to you right now about a bowl victory," Brooks said.
Woodson, who earned Most Valuable Player honors after throwing for 299 yards and three touchdowns, said the previously maligned Wildcats defense was the real MVP.
"Obviously, the offense wasn't getting it going at all in the first half," he said. "We were struggling and putting them in horrible situations, and they bailed us out by getting turnover after turnover."
UK limited Clemson running backs James Davis and C.J. Spiller, who had combined for more than 2,000 yards on the season, to a total of 77 yards.
"Our defense stepped up and played a heck of a game against a team that ran the ball against everybody they played," Brooks said.
Kentucky used a little trickery to turn the game around. Facing a fourth-and-four from the Cats' own 20, punter Tim Masthay took the snap and flung a left-handed pass to Marcus McClinton, who caught the ball and eluded a defender for a 10-yard gain.
The next play, Woodson play-faked and found a wide-open DeMoreo Ford over the middle. Ford, who gets ribbed by his teammates for his lack of speed, managed to avoid getting run down and took it 70 yards to put UK up 14-6 with 2:14 left in the first half.
"To me, after (the fake punt), the momentum of the game changed," Brooks said. "And we held right until the very end."
Besides Ford's big play, UK also got a productive day from junior receiver Steve Johnson, who caught three passes for 67 yards.
Woodson added two more touchdown passes in the second half to give UK a 28-6 lead before Clemson added a pair of fourth-quarter TDs to make the score respectable.
And what is Brooks going to do now that he's capped off the biggest UK football season in years with the biggest win of his tenure? He's not going to Disney World.
"I"m going to go to bed; I'm exhausted," he said. "We just need to keep recruiting and keep working. As I told the seniors, this is a game they'll remember all their lives. For the returning players, we've got a meeting on Jan. 10 at 8 a.m. We are not done. We're going to keep moving forward."