Trust me, I know some Kentucky fans saw a major upset coming at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium before kick-off yesterday. In fact, over half of 2,232 Twitter followers (53 percent to be exact) voting in my Twitter poll said so. In spite of being a 28-pts underdog, I was not one of them. In fact, only my trusted frogs at The Ponderosa had such faith. There’s my confession for the day.
To all you optimists, congratulations!
UK’s shocking 41-38 upset win over 11th ranked Louisville & sure-to-be Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson will go down as one of Kentucky’s most cherished non-conference victories in school history. The drama that unfolded throughout 3+ hours only enhanced the Cinderella ending of a 28-point underdog grabbing victory from the sure jaws of defeat in the final 2 minutes.
Kentucky has been in such close encounters before with UL. In fact, Mark Stoops is an old hand at taking a big lead against the Cards, but then again, Stoops’ Troops failed to close the deal in both 2014 and 2015. Last year, UK gobbled up a 24-7 halftime lead before losing 38-24. The year before, Kentucky had Louisville on the ropes 40-37 with just 5:31 left in 4th quarter before UL’s Brandon Radcliff scored on a 4-yard TD to give UL a 44-40 victory.
Certainly, more of the same appeared to be in store after Jackson & Cards marched the opening kick-off like a Fourth of July parade down Broadway for a 7-0 lead. Took just a tad over a minute. Whew. Cardinal Nation was rockin’ The Big Slice. Never in their worst nightmare did UL fans fear what was about to unfold the rest of afternoon.
Junior quarterback Stephen Johnson, a youngster who likely had no idea he would be suited up in a UK uniform this time a year ago, never flinched. Well, maybe as he was lifting his arm on first snap from center Jon Toth after UL’s ensuing kickoff. Dropping back behind his frisky, but reliable offensive line, Johnson spotted a wide open Garrett Johnson. Pass. Catch. Race to end zone. 75 yards. Score. Untouched. Took all of 11 seconds. UK 7, UL 7. Game On. Still 12:39 remained in opening period.
For the next 45 minutes, the two arch rivals fought back and forth. A few tempers along the way. Wouldn’t be UK-UL without a little trash talk. There was The Ville with “da Heisman star” and Big Blue with the “Star of the Game.”
Going into the game, there were 4 huge blowouts on tap for the day. Clemson was a 25-pts favorite over South Carolina. The Gamecocks were embarrassed 56-7. Vegas checkmark. Kansas State a 27-pts favorite over Kansas. KSU wins 34-19. Pitt a 25-pts favorite over Syracuse. Must have been basketball, but snoopy (I mean Pitt) held on, winning 76-61.
And then there was Louisville, winner of 5 straight over Big Brother. No. 6 would come with the Cardinals favored by 28.
Along with the finishing touches on the Heisman race would be a blowout win over UK and a quick invitation to the Orange Bowl. Except as only Louisville legend Lee Corso would say, “not so fast there, my friend.”
Kentucky pretty much played keep-away the entire last half. Until Jackson led a scoring drive that tied the game at 38-38 with 7:44 left on a 1-yard run. The scoring series took all of 1:48. You could feel the “mo” switching sidelines. Would this be three straight nightmares for Kentucky?
Then UK did something it hadn’t being doing most of the day. A crippling 3-and-out series setting Louisville up for a drive that would give Louisville an opportunity to score a touchdown or FG to claim the win. Then, Lady Luck turned. Just as Jackson was lunging for an extra yard inside the UK 10, the ball squirted loose. UK’s Courtney Love came up with the fumble recovery of the season to stave off defeat at 1:45 on the clock.
Overtime was the early favorite after the Red Zone stop. Bucking odds all afternoon, OC Eddie Gran put the ball in Johnson’s (MVP) hands. Poised, he was. 2 critical passes connected. Down the field UK marched. Less than 90 seconds later, Austin MacGinnis was on the field lining up a 47-yard field goal attempt. As the PJCS scoreboard showed 0:18 on the clock. MacGinnis split the uprights. Kentucky 41, Louisville 38. Only 12 seconds remained. UL could not answer.
The largest upset of the 2016 college football season was in the record books. Kentucky snapped the 5-year losing streak inside the Cardinals’ own house. For Mark Stoops, it was the signature win against a Top 15 opponent that had escaped him since his arrival in 2013. The joy on his face was like a kid on Christmas morning. Yes, Mark, the Cats “finished” the job.
With the victory and a rash of upsets in the SEC Saturday, Kentucky finds itself on a positive road. UK wrapped up the season at 7-5 overall, but more importantly in a tie for second place in the SEC East with Tennessee and Georgia. Beating Louisville should elevate UK in the SEC post season bowl selection process.
Along those lines, you’ll see a clear uptick in the number of fans wanting to attend a bowl. Fans love winners and there is no bigger winner for the BBN fandom than beating Louisville.
For Stoops, the victory over UL with the dramatic FG clincher was all over college TV shows Saturday night and sends the UK coaching staff on the recruiting roads with some good vibes. The kind that attract the blue-chip type high school athletes Kentucky needs to move up the SEC ladder.
Member of Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame. Former co-host of UK Radio Network's pregame football & basketball shows. Founder & former publisher of The Cats' Pause. Former publisher of East Kentucky Voice. Former editor of The Hazard Herald. Winner of 41 awards from Kentucky Press Association & Kentucky Weekly Press Association. Winner of 1977 U. S. Basketball Writers Association sports feature of year. Native of Hazard, Ky.