It’s never easy and rarely boring when Kentucky and Vanderbilt play.
Somehow, some way, UK bounced back from a terrible third quarter and a major scare to win 20-13 on Saturday night at Commonwealth Stadium.
“So very, very proud of our team,” said Coach Mark Stoops, whose defense needed a series of big stops in the red zone and a dropped touchdown pass in the end zone to seal the victory.
“We overcame a lot of adversity, and that’s what you have to do. You have to dig down and make plays and win sometimes. I don’t really care how it looks.”
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It didn’t look too pretty after halftime, when UK led 17-3 and then came out and fell apart for a bit, including a Boom Williams fumble that Vandy turned into a touchdown.
There were uncharacteristic mistakes on special teams, a group that had made few in the first handful of games this season.
There were problems for Cats quarterback Stephen Johnson, who finished the night connecting on 10 of 24 pass attempts for 49 yards and an interception along with several more near-picks.
But Johnson had a rushing touchdown and made two of Kentucky’s three key fourth-and-1 plays at crucial times.
He had plenty of help from the Cats’ running backs, who combined with the quarterback to run for 268 yards, the second-most against Vanderbilt’s defense this season.
“This game, like the South Carolina game, was a grind-out game,” co-offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw said. “We had to go grind it out. We put it on the running backs and o-line. … They went and did it, which was awesome.”
Benny Snell led the way with 20 carries for 94 yards, including 71 in the second half. Senior Jojo Kemp added 12 carries for 55 yards and a score to open the game. Johnson also finished with 55 yards on the ground.
“As we recruit more and more guys like that, that don’t flinch, that will never flinch, look adversity right in the eye and move on and compete at a high level,” Stoops said. “We have a lot of those guys and we’re just trying to put it all together. We’re getting better and better and, he’s a tough runner.”
The true freshman admitted he was a “little nervous” as the final seconds ticked down and the Cats’ fate was left in the defense’s hands. Vanderbilt (2-4, 0-3 Southeastern Conference) had seven tries inside the UK 21-yard line to even it up in the waning seconds.
“I was nervous, but I trusted the defense,” Snell said. “I’ve seen them in practice. I know what they can do, but I was a little bit nervous.”
The players having to make the plays on the field apparently weren’t.
“In our huddle, it was: Finish the game and win,” said Denzil Ware, who had six tackles, including two sacks. “Finish is one of our slogans. That was going through our huddle.”
Derrick Baity, who had seven tackles in the victory, said the defense felt confident. “I didn’t flinch. I didn’t think nothing of it. … The game came down to the last play and I knew we were going to win the one-on-ones.”
After the victory, Stoops said there were plenty of things to clean up from that final drive, including players being a little hesitant.
But he saw a group, led by Mike Edwards’ eight tackles, that did its job and secured the win.
“I wanted to make them earn it and, again, it got a little close for my comfort there, but again we had to stay the course, stay patient and execute, and that’s what we did.”
In the victory, Kentucky (3-3, 2-2) outgained Vanderbilt 307-282, including 258-141 on the ground. The Cats were just 4 for 15 on third downs, but they got three key fourth-down conversions (and two fourth-down stops) to seal the victory.
“When you look at our games, we’ve been in every ball game that we’ve played,” said Coach Derek Mason, whose Vanderbilt team hasn’t won a league game on the road in his tenure. “The miscues are eating us up. I just have to do a better job of getting this team to function well in those situations.”
Kentucky got exactly what Kentucky needed, a boost going into its bye week with yet another pivotal game — this time against Mississippi State — on the horizon.
It was an important stand for the UK defense, much maligned to start the season after giving up 500 or more yards in each of the first three games.
“We’re tired of losing,” Ware said. “We’re tired of people talking down on us. We’re just tired of everything. I tell my team don’t worry about the people that’s outside looking in. Just focus on us, on our team.”
Mississippi State at Kentucky
Saturday, Oct. 22 (time and TV TBA)