It wasn’t some quick, mindless decision.
Trailing by a single point, 24-23, with 37 seconds left in the season, Mark Stoops could have kicked the extra point and forced the Franklin American Music City Bowl into overtime.
But the Kentucky coach knew that he was going for the knockout to end the game.
Even before quarterback Stephen Johnson had run the potential game-winning touchdown into the end zone, offensive coordinator Eddie Gran heard Stoops say over the headset: “If you score, it’s a two-point play, Eddie.”
After coming back from 10 points down twice on Friday, Kentucky had momentum. Stoops and his players wanted to seize it fully.
“One hundred percent,” Johnson said of deciding to go for the win instead of the tie. “Games like this, bowl games, I feel like if you’ve got momentum going into that last drive, that last touchdown, you have to go for it. Regular season, it’s a lot different. But for this bowl game, this situation, 100 percent.”
Kentucky’s athletic director saw it similarly.
“We came here to win,” Mitch Barnhart said after the loss. “In the regular season sometimes those decisions are different. You get to post-season play and we have a quarterback that’s a little banged up and fought that hard. I’m fine with whichever way we wanted to go.
“I think the kids wanted to go for it. They wanted to try and win it and I don’t fault the effort at all. … They deserved the opportunity to have it in their hands.”
Northwestern’s coach gave Kentucky plenty of time to re-think the decision, calling back-to-back timeouts. The first one was to let the defensive coaches talk to the defensive backs about what they might see on the play.
“Then the second time, we just wanted to make sure we were getting on the same page, save one for the on-side kick,” Coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “That’s just the way it shook out.”
It was a play call with three distinct options for Stephen Johnson. It was a play they had practiced hundreds of times for just this situation, coaches and players said.
“We’d been running it really well,” Gran said. “There was no hesitation whatsoever.”
Ultimately Northwestern defended it well re-routing wide out Tavin Richardson that threw off the timing just enough, Stoops said.
“We had options and Stephen went to the correct option,” Stoops said. “We had the look we wanted and we were fractions off.
“Give them credit with the way they defended it.”
How did Richardson, who had a career night against the other Wildcats, see it unfold?
“I’d seen the ball traveling and I tried to go for it and felt like they were holding me back,” he said, frustrated. “But ball touched my hands and I just dropped it.”
If Stoops had it to do over again, maybe he would’ve kicked the extra point, but ultimately of the decision, he said simply: “I’m good with it.”
The coach on the other side said he would’ve done something similar.
“I probably would have done the same,” Fitzgerald said. “What are you going to do? That’s a good call. I would have done the same thing if I were Mark.”