It seemed only appropriate that a game that started with a video montage of Muhammad Ali would turn into a prize fight.
The knock-down, drag-out affair that included five lead changes and four ties ended in a 47-yard field goal with 12 seconds to go by Austin MacGinnis. It was the junior kicker’s second game-winning field goal this season and it put Kentucky up for good 41-38 on Saturday.
“Best feeling I’ve had on a football field,” MacGinnis said. “To get the win in the home state, there’s nothing like it.”
There was nothing like the feeling in the locker room either. Coach Mark Stoops said he had trouble getting the team to calm down long enough to address them.
The party continued for more than 30 minutes after the final horn.
“The excitement in the locker room,” a beaming Jojo Kemp said. “I wish you guys were in there. We had fun. We had a ball.”
Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran, whose side of the ball racked up 581 yards against the Cardinals, joked that he should get some hazard pay for being in the UK locker room afterward.
“I just kind of sit back, because for me as a coach it’s really fun to just – and they hurt you,” he laughed. “They hurt you in there when they hug you and they beat on you. I’ve learned, I’m wise to it, so I sat back and just watched, and it was awesome.”
If the game was the main event, the undercard was the battle between two quarterbacks, with UK’s Stephen Johnson amassing 338 passing yards and three touchdowns to go with eight carries for 83 yards.
And likely Heisman Trophy frontrunner Lamar Jackson, who had 281 yards passing with two touchdowns (and three picks, including one in the final second into the hands of Mike Edward to seal the win) and 171 yards rushing with two more scores.
“It was really big,” said Johnson, who had a career high 338 yards passing in the win. “To come out here and play a complete game, we’ve been waiting for that the entire season, to show what we can do.”
The victory snapped a five-game losing streak in the Governor’s Cup to the Cardinals (9-3) and was the Cats’ first win over a ranked opponent since 2002.
Kentucky (7-5) amassed 581 yards of total offense, including 352 passing. The Cardinals put up 561 yards of offense, but turned the ball over four times, three at crucial times. UK scored 10 points off those miscues.
“They’re an explosive bunch, and we knew we needed to get some turnovers,” Stoops said.
There was a Jackson fumble with less than two minutes to play corralled by UK’s Courtney Love to set up the winning field goal. “For it to end like that, it was awesome,” said Love, who had six tackles and his first fumble recovery.
And two interceptions for Edwards, including one in a cluster of players as time expired to seal the win.
As the team went on the field, Edwards said the team said one thing: “We just told ourselves: one stop and we have this game.”
Both teams found their own special way to say good morning to the 54,075 fans at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.
Just two minutes ran off the clock before the Cardinals surgically knifed through the Cats defense, first with a 42-yard pass to open the game, then a 20-yard slant pass.
Two straight Brandon Radcliff runs set up a 19-yard score for Jackson, helping the quarterback set a new Atlantic Coast Conference record for touchdowns in a season.
On its first play of the game, Kentucky’s Johnson found Garrett Johnson for a 75-yard scoring pass to even it up 7-7. It was a career long for Garrett Johnson and a UK long for Stephen Johnson.
Boom Williams’ 36-yard zig-zagging run through the Louisville defense put UK up 14-7 with four minutes left in the first quarter.
Louisville responded with a 12-play, 70-yard drive that ended in an 18-yard pass to a wide open Reggie Bonnafon in the left corner of the Kentucky end zone.
On its next go-around, the Kentucky defense held the Cardinals to three points, on a 19-yard field goal by Blanton Creque, to make it 17-14 Louisville midway through the second quarter.
A Trumaine Washington interception late in the second quarter helped set up an 18-yard shovel pass from Jackson to Hikutini to put the Cardinals up 24-14. Opponents have now scored 106 points off Cats miscues this season.
That didn’t last long. On the second play of the next drive, Stephen Johnson again found Garrett Johnson for another bomb, this one for 63 yards to pull within three points, 24-21 with two minutes left in the half.
Johnson, the receiver, had a career night with 164 yards and two touchdowns on five catches.
Kentucky grabbed the lead back, 28-24, on its opening drive of the second half. Benny Snell needed a few inches for a first down and took about 18 yards for the touchdown. UK’s 229 yards on the ground was the most given up this season by the Cards.
Louisville punched back, also going 75 yards on its opening series, and getting in the end zone on a 3-yard run by Jeremy Smith to reclaim the lead 31-28 six minutes into the second half.
The Cats took several long shots to Ryan Timmons in the corner to try and go back up, but the Cardinals secondary made some big plays to force a 35-yard game-tying field goal from MacGinnis late in the third quarter.
A Mike Edwards interception of Jackson, the safety’s second in as many games and second of the season, helped set up another big touchdown pass for Johnson, this time a 35-yarder to Dorian Baker, his first catch of the game and first TD catch of the season.
A short punt gave Louisville and Jackson great field position and the quarterback made the Cats pay with a 1-yard touchdown run to even it up again, 38-38.
It set up the wild final minutes, the final kick and the locker room craziness.
Jones anticipates a little more crazy after the bowl.
“It’s kind of exciting, but we’re not done yet, though,” the sophomore linebacker promised. “We still got one more left.”