The joke around Kentucky football is that here in 2016 every game has been a must-win game.
The season opener against Southern Miss was a must-win game.
And Kentucky lost.
That defeat, combined with a 38-point loss at Florida and a defense that allowed 42 points the next week against New Mexico State, made the SEC home opener against South Carolina a must-win game.
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And Kentucky won.
Then after taking an expected loss last week at No. 1-ranked Alabama, the Cats faced Vanderbilt in yet another must-win game.
And Kentucky won again.
UK’s hard-fought 20-13 victory over the visiting Commodores may not have been elegant, and it sure wasn’t easy, but it was certainly essential if Mark Stoops’ club has a realistic shot of clearing that elusive six-win hurdle and earning the program’s first bowl bid since 2010.
In fact, you could make the strong case that given Kentucky’s November schedule — road games at Tennessee and Louisville; a home matchup with Georgia — the Cats would either have to sweep the October trio of Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and (at) Missouri, or find a way to pull an upset over a heavily-favored foe down the line.
One down, two to go.
“I’m really proud of this football team,” said Stoops afterward, and he had every reason to be.
True, Vanderbilt is no grid power. Saturday’s loss dropped the Commodores to 2-4 overall and 0-3 in the SEC. But while Vandy’s offense is far from explosive, head coach Derek Mason’s defense is tough and physical and aggravating.
Now throw in the fact Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson, the junior-college transfer elevated to a starting role the third week of the season after Drew Barker’s back injury, couldn’t manage to get much of anything done through the air against the visitors Saturday.
Either late or inaccurate with his throws, Johnson ended up completing just 10 of 24 passes for a paltry 49 yards, his ineffectiveness causing offensive coordinator Eddie Gran to turn one-dimensional down the stretch.
“After the third quarter, that’s what the game dictated,” Gran said.
And Kentucky found a way to get the job done anyway. Freshman Benny Snell rushed for 94 yards on 20 carries. Jojo Kemp gained 55 tough yards on 12 carries. Unable to do much with his arm, Johnson made some big plays with his legs, gaining 55 yards on 10 carries.
For the winners, the most important series of the game came with 7:58 left and UK clinging to a 17-13 lead. And we do mean clinging. Taking over at the 34-yard line, the Cats embarked on a 13-play drive — all runs — that shaved six minutes off the clock and ended in a 28-yard field goal by Austin MacGinnis with 1:38 remaining.
The mentality of the march spoke to the growing physical nature of Stoops’ club, one that was sorely lacking, on both sides of the ball, over the first three games. On offense, the emergence of UK’s running game, spearheaded by an effective offensive line, has now helped seal one-touchdown wins over both South Carolina and Vanderbilt.
And on defense, Kentucky has come light years from the unit that gave up 40-plus points to New Mexico State just three weeks ago. Surely some of the credit for the improvement goes to Stoops taking a more active role on that side of the ball. Surely some of the credit goes to D.J. Eliot, the defensive coordinator. Surely some of the credit goes to simplifying the defensive game plan.
“This isn’t about the coaches and what we’ve done,” said Eliot on Saturday. “It’s about the players and what they’ve done.”
What it’s really all about is getting those W’s. From season’s start, the bottom-line goal has been to get those six wins for bowl eligibility. Kentucky is now 3-3 overall, 2-2 in the SEC, and two weeks away from a date with Mississippi State and then Missouri.
You know, the next pair of must-win games.