After weeks of heartbeat altering games that led to gnawed fingernails and gastrointestinal agony, Kentucky felt good about finding a way to win one without all of the drama.
When Vanderbilt went up a touchdown early, Kentucky got down to business, scoring 34 straight points on its way to a 44-21 victory on Saturday.
“This is what I’ve been finally telling the guys what we need: Come in and beat a team and don’t let them get no hope, no chance of coming back, none of that,” said Benny Snell, who did his part, rushing for three touchdowns and 116 yards in the victory.
“I’m definitely glad that the defense, special teams and offense, we all executed. We did a great job and it shows.”
Kentucky’s players were starting to wonder if they were just doomed to have games decided on late drives or last-second passes like the one just last week in a loss at home to Ole Miss.
The players wanted to prove to themselves — and their critics and fans alike — that they were capable of putting away a Southeastern Conference opponent for a change.
“We haven’t done that all season,” said cornerback Derrick Baity, one of four UK defenders to record an interception in the win. “Just doing that — we know we can do it — and then for weeks we’ve been in close games and we know we’re better than that. It just felt good that we did it and we finally showed it.”
When Kentucky took a 20-7 lead into break and seemed in control, Coach Mark Stoops urged the Cats to step on the gas, not set the cruise control.
“When we came in at halftime Stoops yelled at all of us: We’ve got to stay in it and we can’t lay down,” Snell said. “We knew at halftime they were going to come with some fire, so we matched it.”
Even before the game started there was a different feeling.
Wideout Lynn Bowden said he knew that a different UK team was going to come out on Saturday.
“You could tell by the vibe on the football field, on the sidelines,” Bowden said. “Everybody was just happy and excited. We had great vibes coming in this morning. I knew we were up to something this morning when we were going through stretch. We had great vibes. … We were just happy. We played like a team today.”
It was unlike he’s ever experienced with his Kentucky teammates, Baity said when asked if he’d felt a “vibe,” too.
“I’ve never felt like this before a game, just so loose and you just had a feeling that something was going to happen, something good in your favor.”
After starting punter Matt Panton was charged with public intoxication a week ago, the plan was to put in backup punter Grant McKinniss in his place.
But that would mean taking a redshirt off of the former starter with just three games left in the season.
Stoops started thinking about other options on Tuesday and then by Thursday he decided to go with Miles Butler, a walk-on from Paducah Tilghman instead.
“I told him on Friday walking off from our walkthrough,” Stoops said. “He didn’t even kick on Friday but he got the job on Friday.”
Butler didn’t disappoint, putting up three punts for a 38.7 per-punt average, pinning Vanderbilt inside its 20-yard line all three times.
“He doesn’t worry about it,” Stoops said of Butler potentially being uneasy about the new job. “He knows he can do it. The staff has great trust in him. He’s a great kid.”
‘Got to finish next time’
Bowden, a player who had more than 50 touchdowns last season in high school, still has yet to score for Kentucky. He got dangerously close late in the third quarter on a kickoff return, taking it 93 yards before stalling just a handful of yards short.
“I don’t even know where he came it was like just out of a blue moon,” Bowden said of the defender that got him before the end zone. “I started coasting a little bit. I’ve just got to finish next time, gotta finish.”
Bowden joked that he needs to work harder on his endurance.
“So close. My teammates helped me get that far, I’ve just got to finish. I’ve got to finish it.”
That wasn’t Bowden’s only big play. The freshman also had three catches for 79 yards, including one that Stoops thought was key.
“When we were backed up and it was second down and they blitzed, they went all-out blitz and Lynn had a big, competitive catch that got us a first down and got us off our own goal line,” the head coach said. “That was a big play as well.”