Date story was published: Sunday, November 11, 2001
NASHVILLE -- The Kentucky football team probably didn't even need a bus to get home from Nashville.
Judging from the smiles on the faces of the Kentucky players and coaches after yesterday's 56-30 waxing of Vanderbilt, the Wildcats could have floated the 217 miles back to Lexington.
There had been a lot of what-ifs the past three weeks after UK had let three possible wins slip through their fingertips, but Guy Morriss's team didn't leave anything to chance yesterday. The Wildcats jumped out to a stunning 30-13 halftime lead and never looked back in compiling its highest-point total since a 68-34 win over Louisville in 1998.
It also ended a 15-game Southeastern Conference losing streak for the Cats (2-7, 1-6).
"I thought about doing some cartwheels across the field," an elated Morriss said afterward. "It's been a long time coming."
"Winning cures almost everything," defensive coordinator John Goodner said. "It's such a good deal to go in the locker room and see those ol' kids smiling and laughing and carrying on."
And don't try to tell the Kentucky players that a win over a 2-7 Vandy team playing for a lame-duck coach doesn't mean a lot.
"I don't care what team we played, finally getting a win and being able to let loose and have fun is great," UK receiver Derek Abney said.
The Kentucky offense piled up a season-high 583 yards and set a team record for the most points scored in a SEC game, but it was the defense that came up with the play that turned the game.
Vandy was driving deep in UK territory in the second quarter and seemed on the verge of trimming the Cats' 23-13 lead to 23-20 with five minutes remaining in the half.
But defensive end Dennis Johnson sacked Vandy quarterback Greg Zolman and knocked the ball loose at the UK 18. Linebacker Jamal White scooped it up and outraced Commodore tailback Rodney Williams 82 yards into the end zone to give the Cats a 30-13 cushion.
Vandy wouldn't get within single digits the rest of the way.
"That was the turning point in the game," said Vandy Coach Woody Widenhofer, coaching his final game at Vanderbilt Stadium. "We're going in for a touchdown late in the first half to get within three points and fumbled. They return it 90 yards for a touchdown, and that 14-point turnarouund was something we couldn't recover from."
It was good that the defense provided a little extra cushion because Zolman had a career day. He completed 29 of 45 passes for 441 yards, with a pair of touchdowns to wide receiver Dan Stricker, who had a monster day himself with 12 catches for 204 yards.
But those numbers paled in comparison to the ones put up by UK's Jared Lorenzen. The 6-foot-4 lefty went 26-for-37 for 453 yards, a career-high six touchdowns and no interceptions.
"We just took what they gave us and it was pretty much a great all-around effort," Lorenzen said. "It feels great -- we finally get to have a happy ride home."
Still, the way the Cats started the second half made you wonder if they were headed for another heartbreaker.
Earlier in the game, Morriss inserted Tommy Cook at quarterback and lined up Lorenzen at wide receiver, and Cook took the snap from center Nick Seitze and picked up six yards on a quarterback keeper.
On the first play of the second half, Lorenzen was again at receiver with backup quarterback Shane Boyd lined up in the shotgun. But Boyd fumbled after an 11-yard gain at the UK 40, and Vandy scored three plays later on a Williams run to trim Kentucky's advantage to 30-20 less than two minutes into the third quarter.
But it took UK just five plays and a little more than a minute to respond. Lorenzen pump-faked and found a wide-open Derek Smith over the middle, and the big tight end went untouched into the end zone to make it 37-20 Cats with 12:16 in the third.
Morriss admitted he was concerned after UK's turnover and Vandy's quick score.
"I had a few choice words; you can bleep those right quick," Morriss said. "We put the ball on the ground, they came right back and scored, and you hope it doesn't go through the kids' minds, 'Here we go again.'
"But they pushed themselves through it today, and I think they can take confidence from that."
The Commodores then struck again with a five-play drive that took just 80 seconds, resulting in a 1-yard keeper by Zolman that made it 37-27 with 9:34 in the third.
Lorenzen just went right back to work. He hit Smith for a 25-yard gain to the Vandy 34, and then rumbled 10 yards to the Commodore 5-yard line. Two plays later he found a wide-open Abney in the left flat to give Kentucky a 43-27 advantage. The Cats would tack on two fourth-quarter touchdowns.
It was the kind of offensive explosion Morriss had been searching for all season.
"I wouldn't say we've arrived yet, but we're making progress," Morriss said. "I don't think the kids ever doubted the offense, anyway, and we felt like it was a matter of time before we could bust one open like we did."
And while there were plenty of smiles around the Wildcat camp afterward, Morriss said the locker room scene wasn't too wild.
"It was kind of subdued, really," Morriss said. "We felt good about the win, but I think it was a feeling maybe they expected to experience after this ball game. I thought it was our best week of practice, and I think the kids realized that and were very confident coming down here."