John Clay

Cats finish like they started

John Clay
John Clay

MEMPHIS — The middle of the season might not have been what Kentucky football wanted — the mere six victories, the SEC East cellar, the frustrating losses and the flop of a regular-season finish.

But you have to admit, the bookends were pretty darn good. Especially when the year ended the way it began.

Way back on the final day of August, on a Sunday in the River City, there was defensive tackle Myron Pryor picking up a Louisville loose ball and then rumbling, bumbling, stumbling his way 72 yards for a touchdown as the Cats opened the year by cold-cocking the rival Cards.

Then Friday night, on the second day of January, with the 50th Liberty Bowl knotted in a dead heat, there was Pryor's buddy, senior defensive end Ventrell Jenkins, scooping up an East Carolina fumble and rocking and rolling 56 yards to the promised land with 3:02 remaining to ultimately give Rich Brooks' comeback Cats a dramatic 25-19 win over Conference USA champ East Carolina.

"I tell you," said a smiling Brooks in the post-game crunch, "this is as good as it gets."

After all, it's how you finish that counts, something the coach might have imparted to his team at halftime with the pesky Pirates ahead 16-3 and the UK head man so blinded by fury, "I lost it," he admitted in the post-game news conference.

His three players sitting next to him on the post-game dais — game MVP Jenkins, offensive MVP Mike Hartline and defensive MVP Braxton Kelley — gave knowing grins.

"But I regained my bearings," said Brooks, who then implored his team to "play the way we're capable of playing."

The final 30 minutes, they did just that.

"Those last 30 minutes were about as beautiful a football as I've ever seen," said Brooks.

David Jones got the party started, the burner from Belfry taking the second-half kickoff and racing 99 yards for a touchdown to give the Cats a pulse.

Then the defense got involved, keeping the Pirates pinned inside their own 5-yard line after a brilliant Tim Masthay punt. The exchange awarded Kentucky the ball at the Pirates 24. Three plays later, Hartline, playing with the flu, hit Kyrus Lanxter, who corkscrewed a Pirates cornerback with an on-a-dime move to the end zone. That tied it 16-16, not even seven minutes into the second half.

It was tied at 19 when twice the Cats falsely appeared to have registered the go-ahead score. Sam Maxwell's interception return to the end zone was negated by Winston Guy's defensive holding call. Then Micah Johnson's 18-yard fumble return was overturned when the replay ruled that the knee of ECU quarterback Patrick Pinkney hit the turf before he lost the ball.

"But our guys didn't give into it," said Brooks, and the third time was the charm.

Three plays later, with the Pirates at the UK 41-yard line, ECU put it on the ground again. Sophomore running back Norman Whitley fumbled. Jenkins scooped. Then scrammed.

"My old ex-fullback," said Brooks, grinning.

"I saw the quarterback coming after me, so I just made two steps in one — a stiff-arm and a high step," said Jenkins, a senior from Columbia, S.C., who had earlier blocked an extra point. "The next thing I knew I was on my back in the end zone and my team was on top of me."

Figures. Three was the magic number all along. The win clinched UK's third consecutive winning season for the first time since the Blanton Collier days of 1954-55-56. And it was the first time in school history that the Cats have won three successive bowls in three successive seasons, having taken the Music City Bowl the past two years.

"I am so proud of what these seniors accomplished, and no, it wasn't the Sugar Bowl or the Cotton Bowl like the two that Bear Bryant did it when he won his two," said Brooks of when Bear won the back-to-back New Year's Day bowls in '51 and '52. "But I'm more proud of the way they did it."

Overcoming the in-season and in-bowl disappointments to put those bookends together, those two lumbering defensive linemen, one at the start and one at the finish, running into the end zone with football in hand.

If that was a great way to start a season, it was an even better way to finish it.