As he was walking back into the locker room, Mark Stoops stopped for one final question.
Those feelings he described of going home from the past two bowl games empty-handed and dejected, what about this time just moments after hoisting the Citrus Bowl trophy on New Year’s Day?
“We weren’t going home without it,” Stoops said with a giant grin right before rushing back in to a locker room full of celebrating Cats.
With a 27-24 victory over Penn State on Tuesday, Stoops and his Kentucky team made all kinds of history, starting with getting 10 wins for the first time since 1977.
“It was extremely important to all of us to come home with some hardware, to come home with a trophy,” Stoops said. “It was very important to finish and collect the trophy.”
There also was some history and extra trophy collecting for Benny Snell, who rushed for 144 yards and two second-half touchdowns before being named the bowl’s Most Valuable Player.
His second touchdown, one from 12 yards out late in the third quarter, put him atop the Kentucky record books for career rushing yards, besting Sonny Collins’ mark that had stood for 43 years.
“I’m just blessed and very happy,” Snell said afterward.
That touchdown gave the Cats their largest lead of the game at 27-7, but Penn State wasn’t finished quite yet, scoring twice early in the fourth quarter, first on a Trace McSorley 1-yard run that capped a 10-play, 75-yard drive.
It was especially big for the quarterback, who looked done for the day on the Penn State sideline with an injury to open the second half. The senior, who threw for 246 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 104 yards, said later that he played through some significant pain in the second half.
McSorley kept it going a few minutes later when he found Pat Freiermuth for an 18-yard touchdown pass after Penn State drove 60 yards down the field in six plays.
In between those scores, the Cats had back-to-back three-and-outs, amassing just 11 yards and eating up little clock with the lead.
Penn State (9-4) edged even closer with a little more than four minutes to play on a 32-yard field goal by Jake Pinegar, who had missed two earlier in the game. That kick got the Nittany Lions within three points, 27-24.
Then came perhaps Snell’s most important yardage, breaking through several bottlenecks at the line of scrimmage to get enough first downs to run the clock out and win it.
Special teams was especially special for Kentucky in the first half, with the Cats grabbing the lead on a 28-yard field goal.
The Nittany Lions missed on their 40-yard chance to tie it late in the first quarter and another attempt by Pinegar (this time from 36 yards) in the final minute of the first half that would’ve tied it at 10-10 was tipped by senior linebacker Josh Allen.
Lynn Bowden gave Kentucky its lone touchdown of the first half with a 58-yard punt return for a touchdown late in the first quarter to put the Cats up 10-0.
“I looked up and saw everybody with clean, legal blocks as they would say, and I put a move on a couple guys because I knew I was faster and just outran them,” said Bowden, who recorded the first punt return for a touchdown in the Citrus Bowl since 1992.
It was his second one of the season. The sophomore standout also had 84 yards on five catches from quarterback Terry Wilson, who completed nine of 15 pass attempts for 121 yards.
Kentucky’s defense was led by senior Darius West’s 10 tackles. Kash Daniel added eight tackles, including his first sack of his Kentucky career.
“I didn’t get a complete sack,” the junior said. “I put my hands on him and he tripped, but it’s all right. Still I’m in Josh Allen category now.”
It’s good company. In his final game, the likely first-round NFL Draft pick had four tackles, three of them sacks, as well as one quarterback hurry and a blocked field goal.
It was exactly why Allen, Kentucky’s all-time career and season sacks leader, returned for his senior season.
“I feel like we’re going to go down as the best team to come out of Kentucky,” Allen said. “That’s how I feel. I feel like we’ve got a lot of great players on this team. We haven’t won 10 games in a very long time. We haven’t beat Florida in a very long time. We haven’t broken this many records in a very long time.”