Mark Story

One trait has made Kentucky football relevant. Will the 2019 Cats still have it?

For students of Kentucky Wildcats football history, there is no mystery to the one trait that every successful UK team shares.

To succeed in football at Kentucky, a team must have the ability to thrive in close games.

The turnaround in the Mark Stoops coaching era in Lexington can be directly traced to UK learning how to produce in tight situations.

In his first two seasons after inheriting predecessor Joker Phillips’ 2-10 2012 team, Stoops not only was not winning the close ones at UK. Against the perennially rugged Southeastern Conference slate, Kentucky was not good enough in 2013 and ‘14 to even play in many close games.

The Wildcats went 0-2 in games decided by one touchdown or less in Stoops’ first season in 2013, then were 1-2 in such contests the following year.

However, over the past four seasons — showing the arc of a program starting a climb — Kentucky has played in a robust 23 games decided by eight points or fewer.

Even though Stoops’ 2015 Cats produced a disappointing 5-7 overall record, Kentucky played in seven games that season that were decided by one touchdown or less — and won four of them.

In 2016, UK went 4-1 in close games and produced a winning record (7-6) and a trip to the TaxSlayer Bowl.

For 2017, Kentucky was 4-3 in games whose margin was eight points or less, earning a second straight winning mark (7-6) and a berth in the Music City Bowl.

Last season, UK went 3-1 in close contests. That fueled a winning SEC record (5-3), a 10-win season (10-3) and a victory over Penn State in the VRBO Citrus Bowl.

Since 2015, Kentucky is 15-8 in games whose margin was eight points or less, 9-7 in such SEC games.

During UK’s current three-year bowl streak, the Wildcats are 11-5 in close games, 7-4 in SEC contests.

Simply put, developing the ability and belief to be able to make winning plays in tight games is the core trait that defines successful periods of Kentucky football.

During UK’s unprecedented five-year bowl streak from 2006 through 2010, Kentucky played in 32 games that were decided by a touchdown or less.

Kentucky won 17 of those 32 games. Included were 14 victories in which UK trailed or was tied in the fourth quarter.

Three of those comeback wins during that run that started under Rich Brooks and finished in Phillips’ first season as UK coach (2010) came over teams that were ranked in the top 10.

One of those beaten top-10 teams, No. 1 LSU in 2007, went on the win the national championship. Another, No. 10 South Carolina in 2010, went on to win the SEC East.

After persevering through some hard times early in their careers, the Andre Woodson, Wesley Woodyard, Keenan Burton et al. nucleus learned how to win the closes ones, going a combined 8-4 in games decided by eight points or fewer in 2006 and 2007.

The result was back-to-back 8-5 seasons that culminated with close victories over Clemson and Florida State in successive Music City Bowls.

Kentucky quarterback Andre Woodson was greeted by some of the thousands of UK fans who swelled attendance at the 2007 Music City Bowl to 68,661 before the Wildcats beat Florida State 35-28. Lexington Herald-Leader file photo

Vitally, after that nucleus was lost to graduation following the 2007 season, the knowledge of how to win close games was successfully maintained by a new core led by offensive play-makers Randall Cobb and Derrick Locke.

From 2008-10, Kentucky won nine games decided by a touchdown or less — including 2009 road wins at Auburn and Georgia and a 2010 victory at Louisville.

That led to three more bowl trips.

For Kentucky football, the challenge for the 2019 season shapes up as a replay of the task faced by Brooks in 2008: Passing down to a new nucleus the “secret code” that allows football teams to win the close ones.

UK will enter the coming season without its late-game difference makers from a season ago.

Offensively, battering-ram running back Benny Snell was the “closer” who could get the tough yards needed to finish games (Penn State Coach James Franklin can tell you about that).

Defensively, edge-rusher supreme Josh Allen spent the entire autumn of 2018 producing game-altering quarterback sacks when the outcome of contests hung in the balance.

For a Wildcats football program whose margin of error is historically thin, the knowledge of how to win tight games always looms as the difference between an autumn filled with satisfaction and one consumed by pigskin despair.

This fall, we’ll see if a new Kentucky core led by star flanker Lynn Bowden and incumbent starting quarterback Terry Wilson can sustain UK’s mojo in the close ones.

Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader 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.