Mark Story

It is not a dream, UK fans: Kentucky is playing for the SEC East championship

Buckle up, Kentucky.

The biggest football game ever played in the venerable venue formerly known as Commonwealth Stadium is six days away.

On Saturday afternoon, No. 12 Kentucky will face No. 7 Georgia for the SEC East championship.

Win the game, and the Wildcats will be headed to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game for the FIRST TIME EVER.

For UK football fans, the moment you have craved for decades — and feared would never happen — is now real.

“The fans have waited a long time for this,” Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said. “I’m thrilled for our fans.”

Coach Mark Stoops and his gutty 2018 Wildcats put themselves in position to battle mighty Georgia for the SEC East crown with an improbable victory Saturday at Missouri that will long live in UK sports lore.

On a sunny day at Faurot Field, the Wildcats were dead in the water deep into the game.

When Kentucky failed on fourth-and-2 from the Missouri 3-yard line with 7:31 left in the game, the Cats trailed 14-3 and seemed done.

Instead, the Kentucky defense that forced a high-octane Missouri offense that put 66 points on Memphis a week ago into a eight second-half three-and-outs made Mizzou punt.

UK’s splendid Lynn Bowden returned it 67 yards for a touchdown. Yet when UK’s two-point conversion try failed, the Cats still trailed 14-9 with 5:18 left in the game.

So the Kentucky defense forced another Missouri punt.

Yet UK quarterback Terry Wilson’s attempt to hit a home run with the deep ball was intercepted by Mizzou’s DeMarkus Acy with 2:38 left.

The Cats seemed out of lives.

Yet the Kentucky defense forced another punt.

The Cats got the ball back with 1:24 left at their own 19. A UK offense that had not scored an offensive touchdown all afternoon needed to go 81 yards to win the game.

After Wilson was sacked for a 7-yard loss, he hit Bowden (13 catches, 166 yards) for 12 yards, then found David Bouvier for completions of 16 and 27 yards.

The UK QB then hit Josh Ali for 13 yards to the Missouri 20. Wilson absorbed another sack for a 7-yard loss, then threw to Bowden for 17 yards to the Missouri 10.

With four seconds left on the clock, Wilson threw a jump ball into the end zone to 6-foot-5 wide receiver Ahmad Wagner. The ex-Iowa Hawkeyes basketball player caught the ball as time expired but was clearly out of bounds.

However, Missouri was called for pass interference — and the game could not end on a defensive penalty.

On an untimed down, Wilson hit tight end C.J. Conrad with a 2-yard touchdown pass that, miraculously, made Kentucky a 15-14 winner.

“I felt like I was going to have a heart attack,” UK’s Stoops said afterward. “But once we got the punt return (TD), we felt like we would find a way.”

Stoops was proud that all three facets of the Kentucky team, defense, offense, special teams, had to make plays to pull out an improbable win. “Very gratifying,” he said.

For locking up Missouri star quarterback Drew Lock and his offense for the entire second half, the UK defense should get the most plaudits.

“When Mark (Stoops) was hired, he said ‘I will bring a championship defense’ (to Kentucky),” Barnhart said. Nodding his head toward the playing field, the UK AD said “That’s a championship defense.”

No. 12 Kentucky (7-1, 5-1 SEC) will face No. 7 Georgia (7-1, 5-1) for the SEC East crown.

A note to The Long-Suffering UK Football Fan. This next week is for you.

After all the heartache, all the football mediocrity, the soul-crushing last-second losses, the 41 years without a winning SEC record, that you have watched and endured, you deserve this.

Have fun with it.

Glory in every minute of the talk that will fill the days ahead.

“We’re playing for the East,” Stoops said. “This is really a big deal for our fan base and our team.”

Said Bouvier: “Our fans are gonna be pretty crazy.”

I don’t know if Kentucky is talented enough to beat Georgia. But when you watch a team win an SEC road game the way Kentucky did Saturday, you start wondering if you are watching a team of destiny.

“Next week, is gonna be a good one,” said Kentucky’s splendid pass rusher, Josh Allen. “We’ve got to find a way to get it.”

Said Bowden: “At home, sold-out event. We got to put on a show.”

So UK fans, savor every last second of this coming week. It may feel like your wildest dream, but it’s totally, improbably real.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory

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