Kentucky football: Ugly win? Seems like a masterpiece to UK fans
Kentucky football has had more than its share of horror stories. The time the Wildcats picked off 7 Florida passes … and lost. The time they led LSU with seconds left and miles for the Tigers to go … and lost. The game when Randall Cobb ran over, around and through Tennessee … but UK lost.
So if you expect too much of a reaction to a 35-28 win over Missouri on Saturday that turned into a late nail-biter after UK dominated early … well, you’re probably in the wrong place.
“It’s a shame that it had to be so close,” admitted Mark Stoops after the victory gave him a winning record in his UK tenure (51-50). “But we rose up and made some stops when we had to. So overall, great team victory.”
Kentucky started the game clicking on all cylinders, taking each of its first 2 possessions to the end zone, jumping out to a 14-0 advantage in a game in which the Wildcats never trailed. Indeed, late in the first half, Kentucky led 21-7 and was on the cusp of stretching that advantage with another touchdown.
“You saw spurts out there tonight where we were pretty good,” said Stoops. He later admitted, “We just got to get a better killer instinct.”
The issues with that instinct surfaced when running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. fumbled the ball while crossing the Mizzou 2-yard line. After Missouri answered with a touchdown drive, the game that could well have been 28-7 was instead 21-14.
It’s hard to hold much against Rodriguez, who rushed for a career-high 206 yards and managed 3 critical touchdowns.
“Those are the type of kids we have in our program,” Stoops said of his star back after the game.
After the end-of-half letdown, Kentucky struggled for much of the second half, watching Missouri rally to tie the game at 28 early in the fourth quarter. Kentucky struggled to get pressure on Missouri quarterback Connor Bazelak, going deep into the fourth quarter without a tackle for loss. But with the game in the balance, in quick succession, the Wildcats managed a third-down tackle for loss on Mizzou back Tyler Badie, then sacked Bazelak to force the Tigers behind the chains as they tried to drive for a final tying score.
“We’re still hungry,” said Ole Miss transfer Jacquez Jones, who had a crucial third-quarter interception of Bazelak. “I told all the boys after the game that we still got a lot of stuff to clean up. We still want that SEC championship, and we got to go get it.”
And ultimately, that was the story of Saturday. The first SEC conference game of the year was a victory for Kentucky. The Wildcats and Tigers have each been demonstrably better than South Carolina, Tennessee and Vanderbilt. With UK’s win over Missouri, that leaves only Florida and Georgia ahead of the Wildcats in the East. Granted, every week brings its own possibilities of turmoil or glory. But if the Wildcats do want to end up in Atlanta — or in an other warm-weather bowl appearance — beating Missouri was a necessary first step.
The necessary step wasn’t exactly aesthetically pleasing. Kentucky has to tackle better and avoid costly penalties, turnovers and blocks of critical field goals. But the necessary corrections have to be easier with a win than a loss. After decades of absorbing tough losses, Kentucky now deals them out. That’s a pretty good start.