Every sigh of relief for a Kentucky fan seemed to be followed by an “oh, no” on Saturday night against Missouri.
Each time the Cats had a big play or a big score to seemingly pull away, Missouri had an answer, often in the form of a long pass knifing through the UK secondary.
Most were breathless at the end, after UK managed a long, go-ahead field goal and then got one to grow on in the final two minutes, holding off Missouri’s final last gasp in the 40-34 win at Kroger Field.
Count Coach Mark Stoops among those hyperventilating a bit as Kentucky won its third straight game at home in the waning minutes.
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“I'm proud of our fight and our effort,” Stoops said, noting that the upcoming week off comes at a perfect time. “They played their hearts out for six straight weeks and it's a good opportunity for to us catch our breath there for a minute.”
Missouri’s last gasp — a final throw by Drew Lock, who had a dominent performance — came up short of the end zone.
Kentucky’s own quarterback paced the sideline waiting for the clock to tick down.
“I can’t sit still,” Stephen Johnson said in those late-game situations. “It was incredible to see our defense do what they do.”
Sophomore Benny Snell, who had two touchdowns and 117 yards in the victory, said he stood on the bench to watch the defense end the game with a win, UK’s third straight over the Tigers.
Snell didn’t worry.
“I’ve seen the defense do a lot of things, a lot of great things and come up with stops,” he said. “I was confident.”
Kentucky gained the lead for good 37-34 with 9:40 to play on Austin MacGinnis’ 53-yard field goal just seconds after teammate Luke Wright was carted off the field on a stretcher following an undisclosed medical event on the UK sideline.
MacGinnis added a 20-yarder to make it 40-34 with 1:48 to go, adding more points to his new career scoring record he got earlier in the game. The senior kicker, who had four made field goals and four extra point makes, now has 314 total points.
Missouri (1-4, 0-3 Southeastern Conference) had a chance to even it up at 37 points, but the Tigers had their own 38-yard field goal blocked. It was one of a couple of big special teams plays for the Cats.
Kentucky’s defense, which had given up just six pass plays of 40 yards or more this season, was gashed by Lock for throws of 75, 58, 50 and 48 yards, three of those went for touchdowns and the other set up a 1-yard scoring run for Lock.
Behind Lock, the Tigers torched Kentucky’s defense for 568 yards, the most given up by the Cats all season. Lock finished with 355 yards and three touchdowns in the loss.
While the defense had its worst outing of the season, the Kentucky offense had its best with 486 total yards and 40 points.
“We’re just happy to finally move the ball a little bit and score more than 30 points offensively,” said Johnson, who paced Kentucky with 298 yards and two touchdowns on 22-for-36 passing. His longest of the night came on a 64-yarder to Garrett Johnson, who finished with seven catches for 111 yards and a score to make it 34-27 with 14:09 to go.
“It’s something we’ve been trying to achieve the whole time,” Johnson said. “I’m just happy with how the whole team played.”
That “whole team” concept was the thing Stoops stressed at the end, too.
“The strength of our team is our team,” he said. “That's not coach-speak BS, that's the truth. We do what we have to do to win games. One week maybe all three sides aren't hitting on all cylinders. Tonight, if we didn't have the big offensive plays, and they didn't score points, we wouldn't have won the game.
“So other times, other games, the defense had to step up or special teams. And we're all in this together, it's a great group, we're far from perfect, but we definitely play for each other and believe in each other and that's good to see.”
The defense bailed out Johnson midway through the third quarter. The senior quarterback threw a pick at midfield only to watch Missouri give the ball right back on a fumble forced by Darius West and recovered by defensive lineman Phil Hoskins.
That big defensive play helped set up a 6-yard run for Snell to cap a nine-play, 66-yard drive.
“The biggest play of the whole night,” offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw said. “Our defense gets the ball back and to me that’s the play of the game. Then we go down and score.”
The defense also helped jump start the offense early in the first quarter when Josh Allen sliced through the Missouri offensive line and popped Lock, who coughed up the ball. It was just the fifth sack allowed by the Tigers this season.
A Courtney Love recovery set up a 14-yard touchdown catch for Blake Bone, his second of the season and the first of the game.
“It’s not just offense, not just defense, not just special teams,” Johnson said. “We all depend on each other.”
Kentucky’s defense was led by Mike Edwards, who had 11 tackles, followed by 10 for Love. Lonnie Johnson, Derrick Baity and Jordan Griffin all added six tackles apiece in the nail-biter.
Baity said he hoped UK would learn from games like this and not wait for things to get settled until the final series. He also was frustrated by the big plays to players like J’Mon Moore (seven catches, 86 yards and a touchdown) and Emanuel Hall (129 yards, touchdown on four grabs).
“We have to have that killer mentality,” said Baity, the Cats cornerback. “I think we get too relaxed when we get a comfortable lead and then we make our own job harder. It’s starting to get frustrating.”
The bye week will allow for several hurt players to heal up and help the Cats (5-1, 2-1) clean up some glaring issues, Stoops said. UK then travels to Mississippi State on Oct. 21.
“We're not a fragile football team; they can handle adversity,” Stoops said. “And we're going to work on our mistakes, but we'll keep on finding ways to win.”
News and notes
Kentucky senior Charles Walker didn’t play against the Tigers while nursing an injured rib that sidelined him for most of the Eastern Michigan game.
▪ Two Kentucky players suffered game-ending injuries in the first half. Chris Westry, a junior cornerback, suffered a neck injury in the first half and didn’t return. Senior nose guard Naquez Pringle had a hip injury early in the game. Stoops had no further update on their status after the win.
Kentucky at Mississippi State
Saturday, Oct. 21 (Time and TV to be announced)