Two years ago, Vanderbilt Stadium was the site of Mark Stoops’ personal nightmare.
Vanderbilt snookered the Kentucky coach with a trick play that went for a touchdown. A week after swearing off fourth-down gambles, Stoops watched as his offense threw a no-chance bomb on fourth-and-1 from near midfield.
Not once, but twice UK lacked the physicality to punch the ball into the end zone from the shadows of the Vandy goal post.
In a game where victory would have all but assured Kentucky of bowl eligibility, UK instead took a gut-wrenching 21-17 defeat and, ultimately, stayed home for the holidays.
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That outcome, filled with head-scratching coaching decisions, was the first time many Wildcats football fans questioned whether Stoops was cut out to succeed at Kentucky.
For Stoops, what a stark, happy difference two years can make.
On Saturday, back in Vanderbilt Stadium, Stoops had one of the best days of his almost five-year UK tenure.
Riding a punishing running game and a turnover-forcing defense, Kentucky (7-3, 4-3 SEC) pummeled Vanderbilt 44-21 before a smallish crowd of 27,346 that was dominated by Wildcats blue.
“We played efficient on offense, defense and special teams,” Stoops said. “Each group contributed to the victory. That makes it very enjoyable as a team.”
Versus a Vanderbilt team (now 4-6, 0-6 SEC) desperate for the two wins bowl eligibility would require, the Wildcats produced a textbook in how Stoops wants to play football.
The UK offense punished Vandy with physicality. Benny Snell became UK’s all-time rushing touchdown scorer (28) and the first Cat ever to exceed 1,000 yards in two straight seasons by running for 116 yards and three touchdowns.
His backup, Sihiem King, got in on the act by running for 69 yards and two scores.
“I really liked the way our offense played,” Stoops said.
Kentucky’s defense, only a week after getting strafed by Mississippi’s prolific passing attack, was resourceful and opportunistic.
Vanderbilt quarterback Kyle Shurmur came into the game having thrown only three interceptions all season. The much maligned UK pass defense picked off Shurmur three times in the first half and four times for the game.
That freed up the Kentucky pass rush (five sacks) to tee off on the pocket-passing Shurmur.
“Anybody who got a sack got to thank our defensive backs. All the picks they got, (Shurmur) got a little timid,” said UK linebacker Denzil Ware (who had two sacks and one interception). “(As a result) he held the ball too long.”
Kentucky’s special teams were strong. True freshman Lynn Bowden set up a UK TD with an electrifying 93-yard kickoff return.
After all the talk of burning the redshirt of sophomore Grant McKinniss after UK starting punter Matt Panton was suspended due to a public intoxication arrest last weekend, Stoops instead made the call not to do that.
Kentucky had backup place-kicker Miles Butler — who had already used his redshirt — punt.
“I was going to go into the game trying to save Grant if I could,” Stoops said. “Grant was willing to do whatever he needed to do. … But I had trust in Miles.”
Butler proved worthy of that trust, pinning Vanderbilt inside its 20 all three times he punted.
“He did a heck of a job, he really did,” Stoops said. “I’m really proud of him.”
When it was over, Stoops had reasons other than how well his team played to smile.
By contract, for leading Kentucky to seven wins, Stoops’ deal automatically rolls over for one year. He is now contracted to be UK football coach through the 2022 season.
Stoops also gets a $250,000 bonus for each win in a season beginning with the seventh.
“I’m always appreciative of that,” Stoops said of administrative support reflected by those contract provisions. “This is a grind. It’s always tough. I’m committed to (UK) and taking it to another level.”
Think about it, two years after Stoops had about as bad a day in Nashville as a coach could have, this time his trip was that good.
“I’m really proud of Mark,” UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said. “He has time and again shown resiliency. Persistence. He’s growing a program and it’s tough. It’s a tough deal. But he’s got a toughness about him. I’m really proud of him.”
Where better than Nashville, after all, to compose a tale of redemption.
Kentucky at Georgia
3:30 p.m. Saturday (CBS-27)