When C.M. Newton shocked college football in 1996 by hiring little-known passing guru Hal Mumme as Kentucky coach, he famously said he wanted UK to “press and shoot the three” on grass.
Mark Stoops’ current Wildcats are playing “Tubby-ball” on grass.
The 2017 football Cats seem to specialize in ugly games.
Like Tubby Smith’s early 21st-century UK basketball teams, these Wildcats play everybody close. Good teams, less-than-good teams, it goes to the final buzzer.
In every game, it seems Kentucky drives its fan base a little bats.
Yet, “Tubby-ball on grass” has one other vital similarity with Smith’s UK basketball squads.
Kentucky usually wins.
In a wild, woolly homecoming game that also had one real-world, scary moment, Kentucky outlasted Missouri 40-34 on Saturday night before a rain-drenched Kroger Field homecoming crowd of 57,476.
“I’m proud of our team. I’m proud of our fight and effort,” Stoops said afterward.
UK’s fifth victory in six games was not secure until Mizzou quarterback Drew Lock’s pass from the Kentucky 28 to tight end Al Okwuegbunam near the end zone fell incomplete at the final buzzer.
It was the third straight UK game that has gone to the final play before a victor was clear.
The game had a scary moment early in the fourth quarter when Kentucky backup quarterback Luke Wright collapsed on the Cats sideline. It was reported by the UK Radio Network’s Dick Gabriel that Wright appeared to have a seizure.
After a lengthy stoppage in play, the QB was taken off the field on a stretcher. Stoops said after the game Wright “is responsive.”
As for the football, so much went wrong for Kentucky (5-1, 2-1 SEC) against Missouri (1-4, 0-3).
After vowing in the run-up to the game to re-establish a physical ground attack, UK had to throw the football 37 times.
With a chance to seize control of the game early against a struggling foe, UK failed. Instead, the Cats settled for one touchdown and two field goals when three TDs were possible.
Mizzou’s Lock and his receivers flat embarrassed the Kentucky secondary, throwing touchdown passes of 50, 58 and 75 yards and setting up a fourth touchdown with a 49-yard bomb.
Yet, in true “Tubby-ball” fashion, Kentucky somehow dug out a victory.
It took another clutch performance from senior quarterback Stephen Johnson.
With Kentucky unable to run the ball as planned, Johnson threw 36 times. He battled through some early inaccuracy and finished 22 of 36 for 298 yards and two touchdowns.
After Missouri tied the game at 27 with 24 seconds left in the third quarter, Johnson answered with a 64-yard TD pass to Garrett Johnson.
When Mizzou tied the game again at 34, Johnson drove UK to a pair of field goals. Since the senior from Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., became the Cats’ primary QB in last year’s third game, Kentucky is 12-5.
“He’s the leader you want. Somebody you want as quarterback,” Garrett Johnson said. “He’s poised. Calm demeanor. Even when things aren’t going his way, he leads.”
With Kentucky’s defense struggling, the Cats’ special teams also played a vital role in bailing out victory.
After Missouri pulled even at 34, the Tigers appeared to have stopped Kentucky’s subsequent drive.
But on 4th-and-1 from its own 44, UK called a fake punt. Linebacker Kash Daniel — an up back in punt formation and the former Paintsville High School quarterback — took the direct snap and powered his way for six yards.
“Just went back to my training as a stud quarterback,” Daniel said.
It led to a 53-yard Austin MacGinnis field goal that gave Kentucky a 37-34 lead. On the night when he became UK football’s all-time leading scorer, MacGinnis cashed four field goals.
“I’m glad Austin MacGinnis is my kicker,” Stephen Johnson said. “I look forward to watching him on Sundays.”
On its next drive, Mizzou had a chance to tie. Instead, Kentucky defensive back Lonnie Johnson came off the edge and blocked a Tucker McCann 45-yard field goal try.
Put it all together, and Kentucky gets to enter its bye week 5-1. Since the venue formerly known as Commonwealth Stadium opened in 1973, UK has only been 5-1 in a football season six prior times.
Yet it’s hard to imagine an uglier 5-1.
So far in 2017, UK plays down to its competition, seems to go to the final buzzer against teams it should be able to put away.
Yet Kentucky keeps grinding out wins.
Says Garrett Johnson: “I came back in the locker room and said ‘It wasn’t pretty, but we got it done.’”
It’s “Tubby-ball” on grass.
And it’s working.