Ten wins, a Citrus Bowl victory, spending the bulk of the season ranked in the mid-teens of both major polls. These are things that happen commonly at some SEC schools, but not so much at Kentucky.
Until this year.
With their New Year’s victory over Penn State in the Citrus Bowl, Kentucky capped what stands as probably its best season since at 1977. Here’s what we’ll remember most from the year that was:
1. Reclaiming the state
Not that long ago, some people still claimed that Kentucky, which was running a distant second in the state to Louisville, should have bypassed Mark Stoops as their head coach in favor of the eternally troubled soul that is Bobby Petrino. For those still keeping score, Stoops just won the Citrus Bowl and Petrino is unemployed after a 2-10 season that ran Louisville into the ground. How bad was it at Louisville? Kentucky’s 56-10 beating in which the Wildcats racked up 601 offensive yards is the Cards’ worst loss in Cardinal Stadium. From there, Kentucky snagged signings from several top Louisville prospects in the NCAA’s Early Signing Period.
For a team that has historically been on the wrong end of several streaks (see below), Kentucky has quietly gone about the business of starting its own streaks. UK’s 24-10 win over South Carolina is its 5th in a row over the Gamecocks. UK also claimed a 4th consecutive win over Missouri (meaning UK went 4-0 against QB Drew Lock) and has won 2 of the past 3 against Mississippi State and 4 of the past 5 against Vanderbilt.
3. Josh Pascal’s comeback from cancer
Football is ultimately just a game … but when Wildcats sophomore defensive lineman Josh Pascal was diagnosed with malignant melanoma before fall camp, missing snaps was the least of his concerns. Pascal not only healed from the cancer and the difficult foot surgery he underwent, he managed to work his way back into the rotation for three games, giving the defense a needed late lift in the season’s final stretch.
4. Mark Stoops crowd surfing
While Stoops entered the season as the SEC’s second longest-tenured head coach, one thing he’d rarely been considered was, well, cool. The SEC Coach of the Year showed some improvement in this area in 2018, perhaps most notably when he crowd-surfed in a postgame celebration after the shocking comeback win at Missouri.
5. A game-winner in Columbia with no time on the clock
Few sports teams have ever had a longer tradition of late-game misery than Kentucky football … which made it all the more impressive when UK raced the clock in a 15-14 victory over Missouri that was completed on an 2-yard touchdown on an untimed final play. There were more meaningful plays in 2018, but few will be more widely remembered by a success-starved fan base.
6. Lynn Bowden in the open field
While much of Kentucky’s success was forged on the defensive side of the ball, offensively, Kentucky found a variety of ways to use speedy and elusive receiver Lynn Bowden. When Kentucky wasn’t pounding the ball with their physical ground attack, they were finding a way to slip Bowden into the open field, sometimes on special teams.
7. Silencing The Swamp
Despite consecutive bowl seasons in 2016 and 2017, some of Kentucky’s longtime fans were unwilling to completely buy in on Stoops … until the 31-year losing streak to Florida ended. Kentucky’s 27-16 win in The Swamp set the tone for the entire season, and simultaneously killed one of the biggest ghosts of Kentucky’s brutal football past.
A year before, Kentucky lost the game when Stoops’ secondary left an uncovered receiver twice for Gator touchdowns. In 2018, not only did UK win, but Stoops was virtually the only person on the field who followed the game-clinching score.
8. The most dominating defender in UK history
Much as the 2018 squad’s progress might have been helped by coaching, the game is about Jimmys and Joes as much (or more) than Xs and Os. This makes it even more incredible that the consensus college football defensive player of the year was a former 2-star late recruit who Stoops nabbed over Monmouth. But linebacker Josh Allen developed from a scrawny, speedy athlete into a massive man who could terrorize QBs, cover running backs, and slobber-knock receivers. Allen broke the UK career sack record and has played himself from a recruit no one had heard of into an almost certain top NFL Draft pick. He topped it off by not only choosing to play in the Citrus Bowl, but by notching 3 sacks and a blocked field goal. He’ll leave with 31.5 career sacks and a message for NFL GMs:
If I’m not #1 than I don’t know who is🤷🏾♂️ #GoCats
— 41 (@JoshAllen41_) January 1, 2019
9. The greatest running back in UK history
Most years, Allen would be the most memorable personality on a team. But most years did not feature a third superhuman season from running back Benny Snell, who leaves UK owning basically every rushing record in program history. Snell’s 48 rushing touchdowns and 3,873 rushing yards place him among the best in the history of the SEC.
More important than the numbers was the raw determination that Snell embodied. Also overlooked as a recruit, Snell almost begged observers to disrespect his game or his team. It was always more motivational fire for one of the strongest running backs in recent memory. His final touchdown, which broke UK’s career rushing mark, might be the strongest image of this remarkable 2018 team.
10. Finishing strong in the Citrus Bowl
We live, as Jerry Maguire taught us a quarter century ago, in a cynical age. Bowl games are just exhibitions to allow the schools to make a few bucks, and don’t really mean anything. Right?
If there were any doubters left from this Kentucky season, an impressive 10th win (and 5th as an underdog) over a talented and determined Penn State squad should clarify that this Kentucky team was special. Allen and Snell certainly showed with their play that the game meant plenty to them. And Stoops? Well, the man doesn’t dance like this for just any old reason.
— ESPN (@espn) January 1, 2019