John Clay

Brooks' gamble gave Cats a second chance

John Clay
John Clay

STARKVILLE, Miss. — Were you given time enough to think about it, you would have thought that the stress of the season, the fickleness of the fans, the absurdity of the Florida loss and the meddling of the media had finally pushed the old coach over the edge.

You would have thought that surely this time, oh yeah, Rich Brooks has lost it.

Only you didn't have time to think about it.

No sooner had quarterback Randall Cobb made his way over to the Kentucky sideline after another series of three-and-out, someone was telling him to put his helmet back on and get back out on the field.

Up in the press box, no sooner had offensive coordinator Joker Phillips started making notations in his notebook about what had gone wrong on the series, than through his headphones he heard he'd better get the next play-call ready.

"I had no idea," said Phillips.

See, over on the sideline, the old coach had reached deep into his bag of tricks.

"Hey," Riverboat gambler Rich Brooks said afterward, a glint in his eye. "Music City Bowl, right?"

Two years ago when Kentucky beat Clemson in the Music City Bowl, Brooks pulled a successful fake punt on a fourth-and-4 from his own 20-yard line late in the second quarter with his team up by a point.

Saturday, tied 7-7 with host Mississippi State in the third quarter at Davis Wade Stadium, Kentucky faced a fourth-and-1 on its own 27-yard line when the 67-year-old Brooks again called for a fake punt.

Repeat: UK's own 27.

"I would have looked like a real idiot had it not worked," admitted Brooks.

But it did work.

Instead of snapping the ball to punter Tim Masthay, the Cats quick-snapped the ball to up-back A.J. Nance, and the backup fullback bulled forward for 2 yards and a first down.

Nine plays later, Cobb found an open Maurice Grinter for a 3-yard touchdown pass and the go-ahead score in what became a 14-13 Kentucky win.

This isn't to say the fake punt won the game for the visitors. But here's what the fake punt did: "It gave us a second chance," said Cobb.

There's a theme in there. This was a second chance to show that this Kentucky team was better than the one that was obliterated 63-5 last week at Florida. (Ask Georgia about Florida.)

This was a second chance for the UK defense to show that it was better than it had played the last couple of weeks. This was a second chance for the offense to finally produce a credible running game capable of opening up the Cats attack. This was a second chance for the Cats to become bowl-eligible for the third straight season.

Down 7-0 at half, that was Brooks' simple message to his team: You have 30 minutes to reach your goal.

"Coach Brooks is a great motivator," said defensive end Ventrell Jenkins, who had a monster game with two sacks. "Every week, you're gonna hear basically the same thing, but he's going to put some different words in there. But some kind of way, he seems to trick us and motivate us."

Message: I want you to go for it, so I'm going for it.

"I've got to credit Nance for coming over and saying they were soft on their defensive stay; they weren't really charging," Brooks said. "He thought he could get 1 or 2 yards."

During the week, the Kentucky staff had noticed State didn't always rush punts. Nance confirmed it during the game. But it's one thing to see it on film. It's one thing to see it during the game. It's another thing entirely, with the ball on your own 27, to call a fake.

"I just decided in that situation, we needed a spark," Brooks said. "Big play for him and a big play for us."

Just when the Cats needed a big play.

"We needed a win, any way we could get it," said Riverboat Rich. "That's about how we got it: any way. Bizarre, strange, interesting, boring, I don't care. We got the win."

"As old as he is," said Jenkins, smiling, "he can still motivate us."