Story published: Sunday, November 12, 2006
It's taken 3 1/2 years, many near misses, heartaches and duds.
But finally, the Kentucky football team seems to be learning how to win under Coach Rich Brooks.
For the second week in a row, the Wildcats erased a fourth-quarter deficit with big plays on both sides of the ball. It was the recipe for last week's 24-20 win over Georgia, and yesterday, UK scored 21 points in the final frame and came up with two goal-line interceptions to overtake Vanderbilt 38-26.The win improved Kentucky to 6-4 overall and 4-3 in the Southeastern Conference and made the Cats eligible for their first bowl game since 1999.
"The fact that we were able to come back again speaks volumes to where the team's heads are at mentally," Brooks said. "When something is going wrong for us, we can make things start going right. You have to have ability and confidence to be able to do that, and this team has both of those things."
Kentucky seemed on its heels when Vandy quarterback Chris Nickson scored on a 6-yard run to put the Commodores ahead 20-17 late in the third quarter.
But the Cats bounced right back with a nine-play, 85-yard drive that resulted in a 3-yard touchdown run by Rafael Little to reclaim the lead at 24-20.
And just as it did in the Georgia game, the UK defense followed that go-ahead drive by forcing a key turnover. Vanderbilt had it fourth-and-goal at the 2 when Nickson was pressured and wrapped up by linebacker Wesley Woodyard. Nickson flung the ball toward the end zone as he was going to the ground only to be picked off by freshman cornerback E.J. Adams, who returned the ball 50 yards to midfield.
"The staple of this defense is that we make plays," Brooks said. "And none was bigger than E.J. Adams."
It was one of four turnovers forced by the Wildcats, which raised their season total to 26.
The Wildcats finished off Vanderbilt on their next two possessions. Quarterback Andre Woodson (450 passing yards, four TDs) hit DeMoreo Ford for a 27-yard score to make it 31-20 with 7:59 left.
Then free safety Marcus McClinton came up with another interception in the end zone to stall a Vandy scoring threat.
After that, Woodson hit Keenan Burton (11 catches, 171 yards, two TDs) for a 57-yard touchdown at 3:31 that sealed it.
Little was magnificent in his return from a three-game absence with a knee injury. He carried 20 times for 135 yards, the first 100-yard rushing game by a Wildcat this season. He also caught eight passes for 114 yards.
"I felt like the old Rafael out there for the first time this year," Little said.
The Wildcats said there was no panic on the sideline when they looked up at the scoreboard in the fourth quarter and saw themselves trailing.
"We do have better talent," said junior safety Roger Williams. "But I'd say most of it is confidence."
"We're just expecting to win now," senior center Matt McCutchan said. "It's definitely an attitude adjustment. We're not going to let ourselves lose. We've got each other's backs."
The game was both bizarre and entertaining. There were special teams gaffes everywhere: Vanderbilt missed two field goals, botched an extra-point attempt on a bad snap, and muffed a punt. UK had a punt blocked, missed two field goals, and had a Burton kickoff return for a touchdown negated by a holding penalty.
There was also little defense: The teams combined for 1,218 yards, the third-highest total in school history and highest since UK and Louisville combined for 1,302 yards in 1998.
Vandy's Nickson threw for 446 yards, and sophomore receiver Earl Bennett had 11 catches for 220 yards.
But Brooks wouldn't let those statistics put a damper on UK's sixth win.
"We were right there in coverage, and they made some plays," Brooks said. "But we made more plays than they did. Yards are yards, but points are what counts."
Kentucky is guaranteed at least a third-place finish in the SEC East, its highest finish since taking third in the division in 1993.
"It hasn't been an easy 3 1/2 years, but you better believe we have the program headed in the right direction," Brooks said. "We've got a shot in this league now. We don't want to be cellar dwellers anymore."