Mark Story

The pivotal game of the 2019 Kentucky football season? It may surprise you

Mark Stoops says UK football starts spring with a learning curve

Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops talks to the media after his team’s first day of spring practice on Monday, March 4, 2019. The Wildcats must replace several experienced players from last year’s 10-3 team that won the Citrus Bowl.
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Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops talks to the media after his team’s first day of spring practice on Monday, March 4, 2019. The Wildcats must replace several experienced players from last year’s 10-3 team that won the Citrus Bowl.

On the first page of the “Coach Speak” anthology, you will find this chestnut: “The most important game is the next game.”

If Mark Stoops breaks that out Friday night after the University of Kentucky’s Blue-White spring football game, students of UK football history will understand it is more in this case than the usual coaching cliche.

Kentucky is coming off a historic 10-3 season in 2018 that ended with a 27-24 victory over Penn State in the VRBO Citrus Bowl. Since Bear Bryant departed as Wildcats coach in 1953, last year was only the fourth time a Kentucky football team has won as many as nine games in a season.

The two most recent times UK hit the nine-win threshold — Fran Curci’s 10-1 team in 1977 and Jerry Claiborne’s 9-3, Hall of Fame Bowl championship team in 1984 — the Wildcats frittered away their positive program momentum with a disappointing showing in the following season’s opening game.

For those alert to the lessons of the past, that makes Kentucky’s 2019 season opener against Toledo (7-6 in 2018) far more pivotal than even the normal tone-setting first game of the year.

During Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops’ press conference on Monday, true freshman nose guard Quinton Bohanna was singled out for his play in Saturday’s 29-26 win over Tennessee.

In 1978’s initial contest, Kentucky took a nine-game winning streak to South Carolina (which was 14 years from joining the SEC). However, quarterback Derrick Ramsey and defensive end Art Still, the Wildcats best offensive and defensive players during the prior year’s 10-1 campaign, had been lost to graduation.

Nevertheless, UK remained well-stocked with veteran players — linebackers Jim Kovach and Kelly Kirchbaum; nose guard Richard Jaffe; running backs Randy Brooks and Chris Hill; wideout Felix Wilson — who had been program staples in prior seasons.

Yet in Columbia, UK’s veteran defense got knocked back on its heels by a South Carolina rushing attack that possessed the ball for all but five plays of the first quarter.

Kentucky’s special teams gave the Gamecocks their only touchdown with an 11-yard punt. In spite of playing well overall in his first college start, new Kentucky QB Mike Deaton threw a late interception in South Carolina territory that cost UK a shot at a winning field goal.

After the interception, the UK defense held South Carolina on a third-down play with 1:07 left in the game. Kentucky still had three timeouts but inexplicably let the Gamecocks run down the clock and take a delay of game penalty before punting.

The 14-14 tie that night set the tone for what became a 4-6-1 season.

After posting winning years in three of his first five seasons as Kentucky coach, Curci never enjoyed another one in his final four seasons on the UK sidelines.

UK quarterback Terry Wilson talks about the opening days of spring practice with the Wildcats football teams. Wilson is returning to Kentucky for his second season as the starter.

The 1985 season opener again saw UK football jump the tracks just when things seemed to be humming.

In star running back George Adams and standout free safety/punter Paul Calhoun, Kentucky had lost its two primary “difference makers” from the prior season’s 9-3 team that ended its year with an upset of Wisconsin in the Hall of Fame Bowl.

Nevertheless, Kentucky remained well-stocked with veteran players — quarterback Bill Ransdell; running backs Mark Higgs and Marc Logan; defensive end Brian Williams; cornerbacks Maurice Douglas and Tony Mayes — who had been program staples the prior season.

Facing Bowing Green in Commonwealth Stadium, UK moved the ball but settled for too many Joey Worley field goals (four) rather than touchdowns. That left the door open for Falcons’ star quarterback Brian McClure and a high-octane passing attack.

McClure made the Cats pay, hitting flanker Greg Meehan with the game-winning TD pass with 23 seconds left in what became a 30-26 Falcons victory.

That surprise loss led to a dispiriting 5-6 season.

After going to bowl games twice in his first three years as Kentucky coach, Claiborne never made it back to the postseason in his final five seasons.

Lynn Bowden has fun take on his relationship with Kentucky quarterback Terry Wilson.

In 2019, the challenge for Stoops and his troops is not to let history repeat in this season’s opener.

Kentucky will open the coming year without all-time leading rusher Benny Snell and national Defensive Player of the Year Josh Allen, the “faces” of last year’s 10-3 campaign.

Nevertheless, UK remains well-stocked with veteran players — quarterback Terry Wilson; flanker Lynn Bowden; nose guard Quinton Bohanna; linebackers Kash Daniel and Boogie Watson — who were program staples in 2018.

Toledo is a strong Mid-American Conference football program that has posted nine straight winning seasons.

All of this is why, for those who know and understand Kentucky football history, it will not be an over-sell if Stoops dials up the “coach speak” Friday night about how pivotal UK’s next game will be.

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2019 UK football schedule

Aug. 31: TOLEDO

Sept. 7: EASTERN MICHIGAN

Sept. 14: FLORIDA

Sept. 21: At Mississippi State

Sept. 28: At South Carolina

Oct. 5: Open

Oct. 12: ARKANSAS

Oct. 19: At Georgia

Oct. 26: MISSOURI

Nov. 2: Open

Nov. 9: TENNESSEE

Nov. 16: At Vanderbilt

Nov. 23: TENNESSEE-MARTIN

Nov. 30: LOUISVILLE

NOTE: Home games are in all capital letters. Game times and TV channels will be announced at a later date.

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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a H-L sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.

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