Story published: Sunday, November 13, 2005
NASHVILLE -- The clock could not strike zero fast enough.
Kentucky had delivered one of the most impressive performances of the Rich Brooks era, building a stunning 41-10 lead over Vanderbilt thanks to another monster outing from Rafael Little and an avalanche of big plays from the special teams.But it was fading fast.
After Vandy receiver Earl Bennett made his fifth touchdown reception of the game, that 31-point lead was suddenly down to 48-43 with 2:09 left.
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And remember, this was the same Commodores team that recovered an onside kick in erasing a late two-touchdown deficit at Florida last weekend.
And remember, this was a Kentucky program that has made a habit of finding ways to turn sure-fire wins into head-scratching losses.
When it came down to it, however, the Wildcats did something they haven't done much of under Brooks. They finished. They might have raised the stress levels of those listening to the game on the radio, but they finished.
Sophomore tight end Jacob Tamme recovered the ensuing onside kick, allowing the Cats to run out the clock, take one big exhale and get out of town with a 48-43 win.
It was Brooks' first Southeastern Conference road win and improved UK to 3-6 overall and 2-4 in SEC play, which also marks the first time in Brooks' three-year tenure that he has won more than one conference game.
But in typical Kentucky fashion, the Wildcats made everybody sweat it out.
Brooks admitted to being a little nervous after Vandy's last score, but the players said they never lost faith.
"In our hearts, we knew we were going to pull it out," linebacker Joe Schuler said. "Past Kentucky teams might have been like, `Here we go again.'
But this team has learned how to fight and battle no matter what, and that's huge."
Just five days after Brooks was given a one-year vote of confidence, UK came out with a showing that rivaled only last year's 51-32 win over Indiana as far as making big plays.
But yesterday's win might have been more significant in that the Wildcats came in as double-digit underdogs to a Vandy team that took Florida to double overtime at the Swamp and still was bowl-eligible going into the game.
Instead, the Commodores (4-6, 2-5) will be staying home for bowl season for the 23rd consecutive year.
"We lost our bowl hopes last week, so we wanted to turn the tables a little bit and bust somebody else's," UK linebacker Wesley Woodyard said.
The Wildcats were far from perfect: Outside of Little, they didn't do much offensively, particularly in the second half, and were outgained 515-364. The defense, after a stout first half, allowed the Commodores to pick up 351 yards after intermission.
Kentucky managed to do two things that had been mostly missing under Brooks: They made big plays, and they made them at just the right time.
Little recorded 372 all-purpose yards and were the second-most in school history behind Moe Williams' 429 against South Carolina in 1995 and were the third-most in SEC history. Included in that total were 198 rushing yards on 28 carries with three TDs, his third straight 100-yard rushing performance.
Little caught a 50-yard screen pass on third down to set up Kentucky's first score, had a 57-yard punt return to set up the Cats' second TD, had a 43-yard run that preceded a Taylor Begley 46-yard field goal, had a 31-yard punt return that set up his own 3-yard score, and added a 65-yard scoring run that put UK on top 48-17 with 4:33 left in the third quarter.
When asked if Little should be given consideration for SEC Offensive Player of the Year, offensive coordinator Joker Phillips said, "I don't know, but he's the offensive player of the year on this football team."
Tamme called Little "Derek Abney-ish" on punt returns and jokingly suggested he might start his own Heisman campaign for the 5-foot-11, 195-pound sophomore.
"I've been telling people, 'Raf' for Heisman," Tamme said. "If (Matt) Leinart or (Reggie) Bush or (Vince) Young slip up, we've got to get him in there."
Punt returns weren't the only area where special teams came up big.
After Kentucky pushed its lead to 14-3, Vandy lined up to attempt a 46-yard field goal on its next possession. Raymond Fontaine blocked the kick, and junior cornerback Bo Smith recovered and motored down the right sideline.
After getting two blocks from Antoine Huffman and Roger Williams, he broke away from Vanderbilt quarterback Jay Cutler at the 15 and scooted into the end zone to give UK a 21-3 lead with 13 seconds left in the first quarter.
"The tide turned when they blocked that field goal," Vanderbilt Coach Bobby Johnson said. "That was a deflating moment."
Kentucky led 34-10 at intermission, but the lead could have been even bigger. With Kentucky up 21-3, Shomari Moore recovered a Bennett fumble on a kickoff at the Vanderbilt 3, but Andre Woodson was intercepted in the end zone by Andrew Pace. UK also had to settle for Begley field goals twice after driving deep into Vanderbilt territory.
As it turned out, Kentucky needed every last one of those points. After Little's 65-yard run, Cutler and Bennett led a Vanderbilt rally, as the duo hooked up for three fourth-quarter touchdown strikes.
Cutler finished 39-of-66 passing for 395 yards and five TDs, all of which went to Bennett, who had 13 catches for 99 yards.
The offense, meanwhile, bogged down in the fourth quarter, picking up one first down on its final three possessions.
"We didn't eat the clock like I thought we should," Brooks said. "That's a little disappointing."
The defense wore down in the process, but nobody in the locker room really wanted to nitpick after a big win.
"We've got a lot of young guys who don't know how to finish, and that's part of the learning process," defensive coordinator Mike Archer said. "But we were able to get the win. A lot of times, we've had to learn our lessons from a loss."
The Wildcats' raucous post-game celebration could be heard in the background as Brooks was giving his post-game news conference.
"I hope you don't mind them," Brooks said. "They're having fun."