Kentucky looked lifeless.
And then Stephen Johnson restarted its heart.
The senior quarterback, who left the game with a shoulder injury at one point, came back to score the winning touchdown with 33 seconds to go in the Cats’ 29-26 victory over Tennessee at semi-snowy Kroger Field.
“At the end of the day, we got a winner behind the center,” defensive end Denzil Ware said of Johnson, who had ice and a sling on his left, non-throwing shoulder after the game. “He’s a winner. He’s going to do whatever it takes to win.”
It was only the second victory for the Cats over the Volunteers in 33 tries.
And it came in heart-stopping fashion with Johnson running 11 yards for the go-ahead score with 33 seconds to play and then throwing the two-point conversion — off a double reverse — to Benny Snell to round out the scoring.
The sophomore running back, who was coming off his worst performance a week ago, rushed for three touchdowns and 180 yards on Saturday night.
“It’s crazy, but I’m very, very proud of this team because we continue to fight throughout it all,” said Johnson, who ran for 84 yards on six carries and threw for 46 more. “I knew I had to do what I had to do to win this game. … Very, very proud of how we finished.”
The victory guaranteed a second straight bowl game for Kentucky, which moved to 6-2 on the season and 3-2 in the Southeastern Conference.
“We’re just all fighters,” said junior Jordan Jones, who led the UK defense with 13 tackles, including two for loss and a sack, of the Cats’ ability to come back and win it late.
“We all know what we want and we all know who we are. We all know who we used to be and we all know who we want to be.”
Jones and the Kentucky defense were able to hold the Volunteers to just three field goals after four costly fumbles.
“It’s awful to put our defense in that situation,” said UK offensive coordinator Eddie Gran, whose offense had just three fumbles in its first seven games.
“We’re lucky as all get out to be able to overcome four turnovers and win the game. We talked in chapel today about sacrifice and there was a lot of sacrificing today.”
Because of those costly turnovers, Tennessee (3-5, 0-5) went ahead by as many as five points, 26-21, in the second half on field goals by Brent Cimaglia. The freshman missed a key 43-yarder late in the game, though, that might have iced it.
“It was big for our defense to step up and we got some huge stops and they missed one, which was big,” Coach Mark Stoops said. “But it really was a gutsy performance.”
The Volunteers kept it interesting in the final seconds, completing a 48-yard pass to the Kentucky 3-yard line before the final buzzer sounded.
It was one of many bend and don’t break scenarios on Saturday night for the Cats’ defense, which allowed 445 yards, including 203 on the ground. Backup running back Ty Chandler, subbing in for suspended star John Kelly, had 120 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries.
UK’s offense amassed 371 yards of offense, most of those coming on the ground (289) behind Snell and Johnson.
Snell, who vowed to run for 100 yards earlier this week after being held to a career-low 18 yards at Mississippi State, didn’t get off to a rousing start. On Kentucky’s first play of the game, Snell fumbled the ball away, setting the Vols up on the UK 15-yard line.
“That should’ve never even happened,” Snell said. “But getting back was easy. My team kept me composed. We knew we were better than this team. Coming out and executing was easy.”
The Cats’ defense held, though, forcing a 30-yard field goal instead.
On the next drive, Snell more than made up for his miscue, first breaking off a big 27-yard run and then running it in for a 6-yard score. The sophomore also ran for two other short touchdowns in the victory.
Gran was especially emotional after the victory, which followed a 45-7 throttling at Mississippi State last week.
“It was pretty cool to get your face beat in a week ago and then the kids come back and fight and you see that grit, it’s pretty cool,” he said as his eyes welled up with tears.
Kentucky’s players knew they were better than that, said Snell, who caught the pass on a double-reverse two-point conversion on the last play as well.
“The team last week? That wasn’t us,” Snell said. “That wasn’t Kentucky football.”
This Kentucky football team is one that fights back from adversity and wins close games.
“There’s been many times when we have played some good football and came up on the wrong end,” Stoops said after the victory in front of 57,543. “We have done that here. And so it was really nice to be on the other end to just hang in there.”
Brooks’ bowl teams honored
The weekend celebrating Rich Brooks’ bowl championship teams in 2006, 2007 and 2008 included 114 former players and several former assistant coaches joining the former Cats coach on the field at halftime.
There was a video montage of big plays from that era and Brooks took the microphone to thank Cats fans for their support through the years. Brooks was an honorary captain for the game and accompanied Stoops through the Cat Walk before the game.
News and notes
Kyle Meadows started at left tackle for Kentucky for Landon Young, who was injured at Mississippi State. Young had started the past six games at that spot. George Asafo-Adjei started at right tackle for Meadows. Young played later.
▪ A melee on a kickoff return early in the game resulted in personal foul, unsportsmanlike conduct penalties being assessed on every player that suited up for the game. The strange ruling eventually led to the ejection of two players, Kentucky’s Davonte Robinson and Tennessee linebacker Daniel Bituli.
The two players shoved one another on a subsequent kickoff. Bituli had two tackles in the game before he was ejected.
Late in the game, UK’s Tavin Richardson and Rashaan Gaulden of Tennessee also were ejected. Richardson had three big catches for 52 yards, including a key grab on that final drive, before his exit.
Mississippi at Kentucky
4 p.m. Saturday (SEC)