Three takeaways from Kentucky’s amazing 15-14 win at Missouri:
1. This might have been the Kentucky defense’s best performance.
Yes, second in the nation in scoring defense, allowing just 12.9 points per game, UK gave up 14 points in the first half. Missouri scored on a 10-play, 73-yard drive to take a 7-3 lead. The Tigers then scored on a 10-play, 51-yard drive with 49 seconds left in the first half to lead 14-3 at intermission.
After that, Missouri did not get a first down.
You read that correctly. Missouri earned 13 first downs in the first half, none in the second. The Tigers had the football eight possessions in the second half. Coach Barry Odom’s offense, coordinated by Derek Dooley, the former Tennessee coach, went three-and-out on all eight of those possessions.
UK noseguard Quinton Bohanna dropped Damar Crockett a four-yard loss blowing up the first possessions. The Cats forced an incompletion on third-and-2 to end the second. Josh Allen sacked quarterback Drew Lock on the third. UK stopped Tyler Badie on third-and-1 for no gain on the fourth.
In the fourth quarter, another Allen sack of Lock put the Tigers behind the chains on the fifth possession of the half. Larry Rountree was stopped for a 1-yard gain on third-and-four in the sixth. Mizzou opened the seventh one up with two straight incompletions. And on the final drive, the eighth of the half, Missouri threw an incompletion on third-and-2 from its own 26.
That allowed UK to start from its own 19 with 1:24 left and somehow, someway the Kentucky offense, impotent most of the day, drove the ball 81 yards with Terry Wilson hitting tight end C.J. Conrad for a 2-yard touchdown on the final play of the game to get the win.
That’s what makes UK’s defensive performance that much more amazing. The defense had to play that way, given the way the Kentucky offense struggled for most of the night, scoring just three points before Lynn Bowden took back a punt 67 yards for a touchdown with 5:18 remaining to help turn the game around.
“I didn’t even realize it in the moment,” said UK coach Mark Stoops afterward of the fact Missouri did not have a first down in the second half. “When things were getting bad, when things were getting tough, we were out there fighting in a good way. The guys were pissed. That’s when I like, I went off on a couple of them. I’m like ‘I don’t care. I don’t care what it’s like. Bow up and go make a play. Go find a way.’ And that’s what we did. I’m really proud of this group and the maturity that they have that you can get in there face, you can challenge them when things look absolutely desperate and they respond.”
2. Terry Wilson came through when he needed to most.
The sophomore quarterback had quite a week. It wasn’t exactly a week to build a lot of confidence on. After the Kentucky offense struggled again in the 14-7 win over Vanderbilt, Stoops said at his weekly luncheon that he would give the backups more reps in practice. By Monday night on his weekly radio show, Stoops said that “several” quarterbacks would play against Missouri.
Stoops, offensive coordinator Eddie Gran and quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw all said Wilson was still the starter. And he was. The sophomore did start at Missouri. But Danny Clark came in for one running play. And then in the second half, with the Cats down 14-3, backup Gunnar Hoak came in for three series, completing three of eight passes for 27 yards.
Then with 11:52 left in the game, back came Wilson. First drive, he completed a 43-yard pass to Bowden as the Cats moved from their own 20 to the Missouri 3-yard line. On fourth-and-2 from the three, Stoops eschewed the field goal to make it a one-point game and went for the first down. Didn’t work. A.J. Rose was stopped for no gain. Missouri ball.
But after the UK defense held and Lynn Bowden helped turn the game around with his 67-yard punt return for a TD, the Cats got the football one last time. Starting at the 19. Down by five points. With 1:24 left on the clock.
You know the rest. Wilson went 6-for-6 through the air on the final drive. He completed a 12-yard pass to Bowden. On third-and-5 from his own 24, he completed a 16-yard pass to David Bouvier, who made a terrific catch. Then Wilson completed another 27-yard pass to Bouvier. Next, he hit Josh Ali for 13 yards to the Missouri 20.
After Wilson took a sack, and UK called its final timeout with eight seconds left, Gran made his best play call of the night. With Missouri lined up at the goal line in a prevent defense, Gran had Wilson lay the ball off to an open Bowden, who skipped down the sideline to the 10-yard line before stepping out of bounds with four seconds left.
After Missouri was called for a pass interference penalty in the end zone, Wilson hit C.J. Conrad on a “stick” route for the two-yard touchdown and the win.
Said Gran, “It is one of the best drives I’ve been a part of in my coaching career.”
And of his quarterback?
“I thought he grew,” said Gran of Wilson, who completed 22 of 31 passes for 267 yards and a touchdown with one interception. Wilson was much more decisive than he was against Texas A&M and Vanderbilt. He “pulled the pin” as the coaches wanted. “Absolutely,” Gran said.
Bottom line: Wilson is Kentucky’s best quarterback. He just needs to play like Kentucky’s best quarterback.
3. Yes, Kentucky is actually playing for the SEC East title next week.
We might want to repeat that. Kentucky is playing for the SEC East title next week.
It is true. Very true.
And it has never happened before.
With the win over Missouri, Kentucky clinched a winning SEC record for the first time since 1977 when that 10-1 team went 6-0 in league play.
Moreover, thanks to Georgia’s 36-17 win over Florida, and UK’s Miracle at Missouri, When Georgia comes to Kroger Field for the 3:30 p.m. game on CBS, a trip to the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta on Dec. 1 will be on the line.
If Kentucky wins, the Cats are in, even if UK should stumble the next week at Tennessee. Both Kentucky and Georgia are 5-1 in the SEC. If UK beats Georgia it will have the tiebreaker over both Georgia and Florida, thanks to the UK’s 27-16 win over the Gators in Gainesville on Sept. 8. And if Georgia loses at UK, the best the Bulldogs and Florida can do is tie Kentucky.
Can Kentucky beat Georgia? Yes. The way Kentucky’s defense is playing right now — the way it has played all season — Kentucky has a chance to beat any team. Saturday was proof of that. Given the way the offense struggled, the Cats should have lost the game. But the UK defense did not allow a first down in the second half, allowing the offense enough time to come up with something, finally.
“We found a way to win the game,” Stoops said.
That’s what special teams do. We’re not used to that, of course. We’re used to Kentucky intercepting seven Florida passes but losing to Steve Spurrier’s Gators in the final seconds (1993). We’re used to Coach Guy Morriss getting Gatorade bath right before LSU throws a tip drill Hail Mary pass for the winning touchdown on the final play of the what they call in Baton Rouge “The Bluegrass Miracle” (2002).
To beat Georgia, Kentucky’s offense will have to find a way to improve. Take out the Bowden punt return, and the Kentucky offense has scored four touchdowns in its last 14 quarters. Producing 14 points (Vanderbilt) or 15 (Missouri) is probably not going to beat Georgia.
But then maybe Wilson and the entire offense found the confidence they needed on that final eight-play, 81-yard drive. Maybe the Kentucky defense can rise to the occasion and the offense can find another way to win.
Either way, come Saturday, Kentucky will be playing its most important football game in at least 40 years.