John Clay

Cats might have what it takes to win out

NASHVILLE — The final 30 minutes were pretty darn good.

"The second half, the last 30 minutes, was some of the best football we've played in a long time," said Rich Brooks, the Kentucky coach.

Since, well, the Auburn game.

There were so many similarities between what the Kentucky football team was able to do back on Oct. 17 at Auburn and what it did here at Vanderbilt Stadium on Nov. 14.

Both road games. Both Southeastern Conference games. Both critical games. Both games in which the Cats overcame deficits.

Kentucky rallied from a touchdown down to pull out a dramatic 21-14 win that cold Saturday night at Auburn. On this sunny Saturday afternoon in Nashville, the Cats came from three points down at the half to beat Vanderbilt 24-13.

Both triumphs were accomplished much the same. Great defense. Shutout defense, in fact. And a conservative but strong plan of offensive attack — keep the ball on the ground, put it in the hands of your playmakers, Derrick Locke and Randall Cobb, sneak in the occasional pass, but let the line and the backs carry the load.

Second half on this Saturday, the Cats outgained the Commodores 225-31. The visitors had 13 first downs the final two quarters, the home team had one. Vanderbilt did not convert a single third down.

Consider this first: Locke rushed for 83 yards in the second half for Kentucky. Vanderbilt rushed for 82 yards on the game.

Consider this second: Kentucky ran for 282 and threw for all of 75 yards in winning at Auburn. It ran for 308 and threw for all of 91 yards in winning at Vanderbilt.

All of which left Brooks happy, yes, but also wondering.

"Why don't we play like this most of the time on defense? Why don't we play like we did the Auburn game?" said the coach. "Those are the things that are frustrating me, and I talked to my team about that last night and today."

That's coach-think. A team plays well for a half, on the road, and a coach questions why his team doesn't do that all the time, home or road, no matter the circumstances.

"Yes, it does remind me (of the Auburn game) because it was a critical game, just as the Auburn game was," Brooks said. "And for us to be able to turn up the dial and play the kind of defense I think we should be playing on a more consistent basis was gratifying today.

"Now, as I told them, we have to do the same thing next week as we did the last 30 minutes this week on both sides of the ball."

Yes, Kentucky is 6-4 and thus bowl eligible. That makes four straight years. And that's great. Wonderful. But it's not enough.

That's what Brooks said, and he means it. There are two games remaining, against good teams, but also beatable teams. (Brooks didn't say that, but he knows it.)

Georgia is not the Georgia of past years. Tennessee was starting to crank it up until that Pilot gas station robbery and Dexter McCluster of Mississippi ran wild, and now the Vols are right back to wobbly.

And, yes, Kentucky looked mighty wobbly in the first half Saturday. That first-half Kentucky won't beat Georgia or Tennessee. But the guess here is that the two-quarterback system was officially retired here. Do not be surprised if Mike Hartline goes ahead and has surgery or extensive rehab to alleviate the remaining pain in his left knee. Morgan Newton will be calling the signals from here on in.

But those last 30 minutes, when Locke was running the ball between the tackles with a toughness that belies his 5-foot-9, 190-pound frame, and Cobb was continuing those amazing, determined runs, and the defense was "dialing it up," the Cats are plenty good enough.

Just ask Rich Brooks.

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