Kentucky’s seniors had seen the program through enough ups and downs to get motion sickness.
That trend continued on Saturday when the Cats fell behind by 13 points early to a winless Austin Peay at Commonwealth Stadium, but Kentucky bounced back to win easily 49-13 on Senior Day.
“It’s hard to control the emotions right now,” Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops said after the win, which ensured Kentucky a trip to the postseason for the first time since 2010 and for the first time in his tenure.
After falling behind early, Kentucky found its rhythm and its run, scoring on seven straight possessions and reeling off 49 unanswered points in the victory.
It was a big night for seniors like Jojo Kemp who ran for 54 yards and two touchdowns, including a diving score on his second trip to the end zone.
“A little swag, last touchdown at Commonwealth, I had to give it a little something,” Kemp said, smiling.
It was a big night for Kemp and Kentucky’s seniors, but perhaps an even bigger one for freshman Benny Snell.
The running back broke the school’s freshman rushing record set by Moe Williams with his 48-yard touchdown in the third quarter to put the Cats up 35-13.
Shortly after that, he went over 1,000 yards for the season.
Kentucky hadn’t had any player rush for 1,000 yards since 2007. This season, the Cats now have two players with more than that in Snell and Boom Williams, who had 47 yards and a touchdown in limited action on Saturday.
Kentucky (6-5) finished with 410 yards of offense, including 281 on the ground. It held the Governors to 284 yards, just 126 in the second half.
Austin Peay fell to 0-11 this season and lost its 27th consecutive game.
The day started poorly for the Cats, who announced shortly before kickoff that starting quarterback Stephen Johnson was battling an undisclosed knee injury and likely would sit the game out.
Kentucky missed him quickly.
The first half made it clear that there are no guarantees even in guarantee games. Austin Peay, which the Cats paid $375,000 for the game, scored on its second drive of the game on a 17-yard run for Kente Williams.
A few minutes later, things got much worse for Kentucky in a hurry when walk-on quarterback Luke Wright was picked off and it was returned 25 yards for a touchdown by Gunnar Scholato.
Early on, Kentucky had three likely touchdowns wiped out, the first a 94-yard touchdown run by Williams negated by a holding call. Then a perfect pass to Jeff Badet from Johnson, who was brought in after the disastrous start for Wright, was dropped on his way to the end zone.
Badet made up for it late in the second quarter with a catch at the 9-yard line, but another holding penalty wiped out Jojo Kemp’s 9-yard scoring run.
It took nearly 23 minutes for Kentucky to get on the scoreboard via a 30-yard touchdown run for Snell on third-and-15. Before that run, the Cats had nearly as many penalty yards (50) as offensive yards (53).
The Governors didn’t need to punt until just five minutes remained in the first half.
On the next drive, the Cats went up for good 14-13 when Johnson found C.J. Conrad with a 14-yard pass near the left sideline. It was Conrad’s second straight leaping, contorted grab of a Johnson pass and the sophomore’s fourth TD catch of the season.
“I don’t think it was our energy or anything like that,” Conrad said of the early struggles in the game. “We were ready to go. We just made so many errors. We weren’t panicked or anything like that. We just needed to clean some things up.”
Johnson had another long strike, this time a 40-yarder to a streaking Garrett Johnson, to put the Cats up 21-13 with a minute to play in the half. The injured QB completed five of his nine pass attempts for 101 yards and two touchdowns in the win.
There were no doubts in the locker room at halftime despite the close score, senior defensive back Blake McClain said.
“Told everybody to pick it up. Pick it up,” said McClain, who had seven tackles. “This is a team that we are. This is a UK defense, UK football and we had to pick it up. Then we stoned them.”
Compared to the frosty beginnings, UK warmed up quickly in the second half, going 38 yards in three plays to set up a 25-yard scoring run for Williams.
Then it was off to the races for the team wearing Secretariat checks. On the first play of the next series, UK’s Snell went 48 yards out of the wildcat formation for a touchdown.
“Over the years we have had, we have been inches and yards short,” Stoops said of Snell. “And he we needed a guy with that type of physicality. And he’s brought that to us.”
Next up for Kentucky is a date with annual nemesis and third-ranked Louisville at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium on Saturday. The Cats have lost five in a row to the Cards.
“It’s a big step in the culture change,” Stoops said of getting to a bowl game. “And we want this to be the norm to go to bowl games and win over six games, and that’s our plan.
“Fortunately, we have another game left this season and it’s against our rival, and we’ll be fired up and ready to go for that.”
Kentucky at Louisville
Saturday (Time and TV to be announced)