The last time the Kentucky Wildcats produced a great — not good, but great — football season, the Cats unleashed a dominant defense led by a disruptive force on the edge.
As Fran Curci’s 1977 Cats went unbeaten in the SEC (6-0) and 10-1 overall, end Art Still, a Camden, N.J., product, controlled games from his defensive end position.
For Mark Stoops and the unbeaten and soon-to-be nationally-ranked 2018 Wildcats, there is still a whole lot of football between the giddy present and a truly great season.
But in UK’s impressive 28-7 throttling of No. 14 Mississippi State (3-1, 0-1 SEC) Saturday night before a raucous, rain-drenched crowd of 60,037, Kentucky outside linebacker/rush end Josh Allen did a sterling job awakening the ghosts of 1977.
With Allen constantly harrying standout MSU quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, the Wildcats (4-0, 2-0 SEC) held a Bulldogs offense that came to Lexington averaging 587.7 yards and 50 points a game to 201 yards of offense and a single first-half touchdown.
It was one of the most impressive Kentucky defensive performances in eons.
Every bit of it started with the chaos in the MSU backfield that was produced by Allen.
“A dominant football player,” UK’s Stoops said afterward of Allen. “I was making sure we were being able to rush him as much as we could because it seemed like he was unstoppable.”
Said Mississippi State Coach Joe Moorhead: “Obviously, (No.) 41 (Allen) is an excellent player.”
A 6-foot-5, 260-pound senior from Montclair, N.J., Allen finished with six tackles, two tackles for loss, a quarterback sack, a QB hurry and a pass breakup.
Yet none of those numbers most fully reflect his impact on the game.
This number does.
Mississippi State — which brought to Kentucky an offensive line considered one of the SEC’s most physical and one of the league’s best — saw its tackles amass five false start penalties while lined up across from Allen.
Right tackle Stewart Reese got one such flag. Backup left tackle Tyre Phillips got another. Starting left tackle Greg Eiland had it worst of all, false starting three times while trying to get a jump to thwart the pass rush of Allen.
It got to the point that Allen’s teammates even began to feel a touch sorry for the MSU tackles.
“I did a little bit,” said UK tight end C.J. Conrad. “Josh was having a great game. But I’ve seen Josh do that to our tackles (in practice). Josh is a really good player.”
Kentucky safety Mike Edwards said Allen began Saturday night’s game the same way he does all UK contests.
“He tells every tackle every game ‘Ya’ll can’t block me,’” Edwards said. “(In this game) I told him ‘Josh, they really can’t block you.’”
Allen said early in the game he got in the rhythm of the Mississippi State snap count, and the rest was havoc.
“I thought they couldn’t stop me from the first pass rush I had,” Allen said. “I knew it was going to be a long day for them. I got their count right and then that’s all she wrote; I was trying to get (Fitzgerald) every play.”
The conventional wisdom entering Saturday night’s contest was that Mississippi State was the second-best team Kentucky will play in 2018. Of the teams on the UK schedule, only defending SEC champion Georgia is considered better.
What Allen, star running back Benny Snell and the rest of Stoops’ troops did in bashing State is smash open the door of possibility.
Kentucky has not won eight games in a regular season since 1984.
UK has not had a winning SEC record since 1977.
The Wildcats have not played in a major bowl game since the Cotton Bowl that followed the 1951 season.
None of that is now certain, of course. There are still a whole lot of good football teams, starting with South Carolina (2-1, 1-1 SEC) next week, between Kentucky and the breakthrough season The Long-Suffering UK Football Fans have spent decades yearning for.
But the last genuinely great Kentucky football season was punctuated by the excellence of a defensive end who shut down half the field.
On Saturday night, the current Kentucky football season had an edge rusher producing a similar, dominant impact and doing it against a very good offense.
Says Josh Allen: “I felt like they couldn’t block me.”
Forty-one football seasons ago, that was a feeling Art Still knew well.
Buckle up, Cats fans, this is about to get interesting.
Mark Story: (859) 231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory