Sidelines with John Clay

Refuse to lose: Three takeaways from Kentucky football’s win over Tennessee

Three takeaways from Kentucky’s 29-26 win over Tennessee on Saturday night:

1. Refuse to lose

Despite losing four fumbles, giving up chunks of rushing yards and surrendering the lead in the second half, Kentucky did what it did earlier in the year. It somehow found a way to win.

Example: Stephen Johnson played through the pain, taken to the locker room after falling on his left shoulder on a 34-yard run in the third quarter, then returning and right away ripping off a 17-yard run before finally, with 33 seconds remaining, he hurdled a Tennessee defender into the end zone from 11 yards out for what turned out to be the winning touchdown.

“Stephen was amazing,” said head coach Mark Stoops of his senior quarterback, who gained 84 yards on just six carries.

Example: Benny Snell, who after fumbling the ball away on Kentucky’s very first offensive play, ran the football with a purpose all night long, finishing with a season-high 180 yards on 27 carries.

The sophomore was fresh off the worst performance of his two-year career, gaining just 18 yards on seven carries in last week’s 45-7 drubbing at Mississippi State. Snell had told the media in passing on Wednesday he would get 100 yards and from the second series on Saturday, the Ohio native ran with a vengeance. The first half alone, Snell had runs of 23, 27 and 48 yards.

On Kentucky’s final drive, down 26-21 when the Cats took over at the 28-yard line with 4:43 left, it was as if Snell and Johnson were not going to let Kentucky lose, not on this night.

Snell started the drive with an 11-yard run. After completing a 16-yard pass to Tavin Richardson, who made a terrific sideline catch, Johnson gained 12 yards to the 33. Snell then reeled off 11 yards and 8 yards to the 14. Three plays later, Johnson made a perfect zone read to the right side, keeping the ball and hurdling — bad shoulder and all — into the end zone.

“Last week,” said Snell, “that wasn’t us.”

2. The defense made stops when it had to make stops

Yes, the Mark Stoops/Matt House defense allowed 203 rushing yards to a Tennessee team playing without its top rusher, John Kelly, who was suspended after being cited for marijuana possession during a routine traffic stop on Tuesday night.

Yes, the Vols outgained Kentucky 445 to 371 and won the time of possession by a ridiculous 38:25 to 21:35. At times, the Cats missed tackles, failed to wrap up and gave up a 48-yard pass on the game’s final play before making the tackle just 3 yards from the end zone to save the victory.

But you could make the case that the Kentucky defense, which also recorded seven sacks, won the game by holding Tennessee to field goals after the UK offense gave the ball away four times on fumbles. (The Cats had lost three fumbles the entire season before Saturday night.)

After Snell’s aforementioned fumble on the game’s first play from scrimmage, UK allowed just 3 yards in three plays, forcing Brent Cimaglia to kick a 30-yard field goal for a 3-0 UT lead.

Later in the first quarter, after Sihiem King fumbled the ball away at the UK 41, the Cats’ defense forced a 44-yard Cimaglia field goal attempt that smacked the left upright and fell back into the end zone.

In the third quarter, after Drew Barker lost a fumble when subbing for the injured Stephen Johnson, Tennessee took over on its own 44 and moved to a first-and-goal at the Kentucky 9-yard line. The drive stalled there, however, and Cimaglia kicked a 30-yard field goal for a 23-21 Volunteers lead, their first of the night.

Finally, when Garrett Johnson fumbled away the football on UK’s final play of the third quarter, giving Tennessee possession at the home team’s 49, the defense held again. This time, Cimaglia kicked a 45-yard field goal for a 26-21 advantage.

So after forcing four turnovers, Tennessee scored all of nine points.

“That,” said Mark Stoops, “was huge.”

3. Back-to-back bowl eligible with four games to go

A year ago, Kentucky didn’t pick up that coveted sixth win for bowl eligibility until the 11th week of the season, whipping FCS member Austin Peay 49-13 at home to go to 6-5. It was the first time Kentucky had been bowl eligible since 2010. The Cats went on to the TaxSlayer Bowl, where they lost 33-18 to Georgia Tech.

This year, the Cats clinched their second straight bowl much earlier, improving to 6-2 overall and 3-2 in league play with four games remaining.

Plus, there was more to Saturday’s win than just the fact that it was the sixth win. It was over Tennessee, a team the program had beaten just once — 10-7 in 2011 — since 1984. So many times during that streak Kentucky had played the Vols close only to lose. There was the 24-22 loss in 1987, the 34-31 loss in 1995, the 38-35 loss in 2001, a 52-50 overtime loss in 2007, a 30-24 overtime loss in 2009.

Those last two came with Rich Brooks as the Kentucky coach. Brooks and members of his bowl teams were on hand for a reunion weekend. Both the former coach and his former star, Randall Cobb, spoke to the team about how they had failed to beat Tennessee during their time here.

“We wanted to get that for them,” said Stoops.

Now there are four more to get, starting with Ole Miss at home next week. Then come trips to Vanderbilt and Georgia before finishing the regular season at home against Louisville.

The key number now is five. After going 4-4 last season in the league, the Cats have a realistic chance of being the first UK team since 1977 to post a winning record in the SEC. At 3-2, Kentucky must win two of their last three conference games to accomplish that feat.

Kentucky-Tennessee since 1984

Date

Opponent

UK

UT

Dec

11/24/84

@Tennessee

17

12

W

11/23/85

Tennessee

0

42

L

11/22/86

@Tennessee

9

28

L

11/21/87

Tennessee

22

24

L

11/19/88

@Tennessee

24

28

L

11/25/89

Tennessee

10

31

L

11/24/90

@Tennessee

28

42

L

11/23/91

Tennessee

7

16

L

11/21/92

@Tennessee

13

34

L

11/20/93

Tennessee

0

48

L

11/19/94

@Tennessee

0

52

L

11/18/95

Tennessee

31

34

L

11/23/96

@Tennessee

10

56

L

11/22/97

Tennessee

31

59

L

11/21/98

@Tennessee

21

59

L

11/20/99

Tennessee

21

56

L

11/18/00

@Tennessee

20

59

L

11/17/01

Tennessee

35

38

L

11/30/02

@Tennessee

0

24

L

11/29/03

Tennessee

7

20

L

11/27/04

@Tennessee

31

37

L

11/26/05

Tennessee

8

27

L

11/25/06

@Tennessee

12

17

L

11/24/07

Tennessee

50

52

L (OT)

11/29/08

@Tennessee

10

28

L

11/28/09

Tennessee

24

30

L (OT)

11/27/10

@Tennessee

14

24

L

11/26/11

Tennessee

10

7

W

11/24/12

@Tennessee

17

37

L

11/30/13

Tennessee

14

27

L

11/15/14

@Tennessee

16

50

L

10/31/15

Tennessee

21

52

L

11/12/16

@Tennessee

36

49

L

10/28/17

Tennessee

29

26

W

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