Sports

Two old foes stand in way of Cats' bowl

It's too trite — right? — this notion that somehow there's a crossroads in every team's season, a defining point at which a club's fortunes will swing one way or the other.

In the case of Kentucky football, trite but true.

Kentucky's next two games are the most important games of its season.

Steve Spurrier brings South Carolina to Commonwealth Stadium for a 12:30 p.m. dust-up Saturday. The following Saturday, Bobby Petrino brings his new team, the reeling Arkansas Razorbacks, to town.

Win both and Kentucky will be 6-1, already bowl eligible, with a 2-1 record in the SEC chugging down to Gainesville for a date with the Florida Gators.

Split the two and Rich Brooks' club will be 5-2 overall, 1-2 in the conference. Not great, but not bad either, depending on the circumstances.

Lose both and the Cats will find themselves behind the 8-ball with a 4-3 record and an 0-3 conference mark. A slide will have commenced. The year's remaining tasks will have ballooned tougher. Bowl eligibility will sit in serious doubt.

Kentucky has never beaten Spurrier, having lost 16 straight to the Ol' Ball Coach. The Cats have never beaten Petrino either, losing all four when the nomadic one was at Louisville.

After a series of struggles, South Carolina rebounded with a nice 31-24 win at Ole Miss on Saturday. Arkansas is a certified mess, however, in the midst of a three-game losing streak in which Petrino's club has been outscored 139-31. Florida rocked the Razorbacks 38-7 on Saturday.

Kentucky could have been rocked Saturday at Alabama, but held solid. The Cats trailed 14-0 after a first-quarter blitz, and though the visitors never appeared in danger of winning the contest, a combination of Bama blunders and Blue grit kept it close.

One play sticks out. It was late in the third quarter. Down 14-7, UK faced a third-and-nine at its own 33-yard line. Quarterback Mike Hartline fired a pass on a tape-line over the middle to tight end Maurice Grinter, a converted fullback. The throw was clearly into traffic. Bama blanketed the receiver.

Yet somehow the delivery found its target perfectly. And somehow, through concentration and determination, Grinter made the grab and, despite being punished, held on for the completion and a first down.

Alas, next play, the inexperienced Hartline tossed a back-breaking interception when the Tide smartly failed to bite on a middle screen and safety Kareem Jackson was in perfect position to pick off the underthrown ball.

But back to Grinter's catch. More of the same will be needed.

There is a time when talent trumps all else, but next Saturday doesn't figure to be that time. The Cats and Gamecocks are probably fairly close in ability. And despite Spurrier's dominance, there isn't a dime's worth of difference between the two coaches. Spurrier now is not Spurrier then. He doesn't have the weapons or the swagger.

But his team is capable of winning at Commonwealth. Carolina is sturdy on defense and dangerous on offense. It knows it can beat Kentucky because it has beaten Kentucky eight straight years.

To stop that streak, it'll take the same sort of grit the Cats showed Saturday in Tuscaloosa, the grit Grinter exhibited in making that difficult catch.

Now's the time, after all. For Kentucky, the roads are about to cross.

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