UK Football

John Clay: Cats wake up just in time to avoid upset bid

UK WR Dorian Baker scores the eventual winning touchdown in overtime during  the University of Kentucky-EKU football game at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday, October 3, 2015. Photo by Ken Weaver
UK WR Dorian Baker scores the eventual winning touchdown in overtime during the University of Kentucky-EKU football game at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday, October 3, 2015. Photo by Ken Weaver Herald-Leader

It wasn't a win as much as it was an escape. A big escape. A fortunate escape. A back-to-the-wall, pull-it-out-in-the-last minute escape.

Kentucky beat Eastern Kentucky 34-27 in overtime Saturday night at Commonwealth Stadium and you could make a very convincing case that it was the visiting Colonels who deserved to walk into the night celebrating a shocking victory over their SEC neighbor.

"A victory is a victory," UK Coach Mark Stoops said. "We were very fortunate to get the win."

Very, very fortunate. Truth be told, the Cats sidestepped a land mine, avoiding a loss to an FCS team that would have struck a damaging blow to the progress Stoops has made in his third year as Kentucky coach.

For 55 minutes, Dean Hood's team from Richmond outhit and outplayed Stoops' Cats on the way to a 27-13 lead. But Kentucky found a way to rally and pull out its fourth win of the season.

Despite Stoops saying his team had prepared the right way during the week after three straight SEC games, Kentucky didn't show up to play Saturday night. The Cats were flatter than a pancake.

"That's the game of football," Stoops said. "You have to respect the game, respect the preparation and respect the opponent."

Surprisingly, Kentucky was pushed around on both sides of the football. Eastern got the better of the line play almost the entire night.

Kentucky's offensive line, which had bounced back from an embarrassing performance against Florida to play so well against Missouri last week, had a rough night. Quarterback Patrick Towles ran for his life, and there weren't many open holes for the Kentucky running backs.

And on the UK defensive side, once Eastern found its groove, the Colonels had little trouble opening holes in the home team's line. The visitors rushed for 180 yards. Ethan Thomas gained 84 yards on 20 carries. Dy'shawn Mobley, the former Cat, rushed for 74 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries.

With UK up just 7-6 at the half, surely Kentucky fans figured Stoops would set a fire under his team in the locker room, providing a charge for the second half. Didn't happen. Or at least the result didn't happen.

EKU returned the second half kickoff 42 yards, then marched 54 yard with quarterback Bennie Coney scoring on a 1-yard run to put the Colonels ahead 13-7 with 10:59 to play in the third quarter. Kentucky tied it 13-13 on the next possession, but then allowed EKU to take control in the fourth quarter.

A 29-yard punt return by the Colonels set up a short 26-yard scoring drive. That made it 20-13. Then Eastern went 68 yards for a score that extended the lead to two touchdowns with 7:39 to play.

Somehow, someway, backs against the wall, a Kentucky offense that had done little to nothing all night found a way to get going. A 75-yard drive ended with a 7-yard Jojo Kemp touchdown run. A 39-yard drive ended with Dorian Baker making a terrific grab of a Towles fade pass with 52 seconds left to send the game to overtime.

Kentucky won it in the first overtime. It took six plays for the home team to score. Then the UK defense threw Mobley for a 12-yard loss that hamstrung the Colonels. The game ended with the star of the game, defensive tackle C.J. Johnson, making his 19th tackle of the night.

You could say Kentucky woke up just in time.

"I've got to do a better job," said Stoops when asked about the preparation.

For his young team, this was another teaching moment. Everyone comes to play. And Eastern was well-coached with a good game plan and a fair-sized chip on its shoulder. The Colonels played that way. The Cats played as if they expected to cruise.

Instead, they nearly sleepwalked into a very damaging defeat.