Coaches talk all the time about it being a four-quarter game.
Kentucky’s 41-38 upset win over Louisville on Saturday was a victory four years in the making.
That’s what it felt like, the culmination of a four-year effort that began the day Mark Stoops became the UK football coach; four years of work and sweat and ups and downs to reach the point where as a 27-point underdog on the home field of its archrival, Kentucky could pull off the biggest victory in the Stoops era.
In a shootout at Papa John’s, Austin MacGinnis’ 47-yard field goal with 12 seconds remaining snapped UK’s five-game losing streak to Louisville, taking the Governor’s Cup trophy home for the first time since 2010.
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“Taking it back where it belongs,” exclaimed senior running back Jojo Kemp afterward, his voice all but gone.
For Stoops, the road has been full of deep holes and sharp curves. No denying that. There was that 2-10 record his first season. A six-game losing streak ruined a 5-1 start in year two. Last season’s 5-7 repeat included a second-half slide that had fans wondering where the program was headed.
An 0-2 start this season turned uncertainty to doubt. Stoops’ name became a regular on various “hot seat” lists. The most talked-about number among the Big Blue Nation was the $12 million buyout in the head coach’s contract.
Then Stoops pulled the program out of reverse and moved it forward again. Kentucky won four SEC games for the first time since 2006. Last week, it beat Austin Peay for that long sought-after sixth win. Saturday, the Cats said that allowed them to play more freely against Louisville and its star quarterback Lamar Jackson and company. A better description for their play would have been “determined.”
Senior defensive back Blake McClain, who dropped a key interception in the opening-game loss to Southern Miss, made a key fourth-quarter interception at the goal line Saturday.
Senior wide receiver Ryan Timmons, the former Franklin County star whose UK career had been hampered by injuries, through second effort turned a short pass into a 28-yard gain on the opening drive of the second half when UK took a 28-24 lead.
Dorian Baker, the junior receiver from Cleveland known more for his untimely drops than his key catches, shook off a first-half drop and made a perfect end zone adjustment on a 35-yard throw that gave Kentucky a 38-31 lead with 14:19 to play.
Courtney Love, the junior linebacker, who had faith enough in Stoops to transfer from Nebraska and sit out last season, recovered a Jackson fumble at the UK 11-yard line with 1:45 left, giving the offense the opportunity to finish.
Make that #finish. That was the theme for 2016. After two years of falling short, this time UK had its chance to turn a slogan into success.
Place-kicker Austin MacGinnis was in Stoops’ first recruiting class. A redshirt his first season, he’s seen the build brick-by-brick. He’d made some big kicks, but none bigger than his 51-yard field goal on the final play last month that beat visiting Mississippi State.
Until Saturday, that is.
There MacGinnis was again, keeping to his regular routine on the sideline as UK drove down the field, as the clock ticked down, until his time came and he trotted on the field, picked his target, swung his leg and hit it true, through the uprights.
“I’m just so happy I could do that for my team,” he said.
The box score said the winning kick traveled 47 yards. We know better. The distance took four years to travel. And Saturday made it worth every step.