Most agreed it was a huge improbability for Kentucky to win this game, a 25-point underdog going up against one of the country’s best teams, on the road.
But for the Wildcats to have a chance, here’s what would have to happen:
• The Cats would have to control the game on the ground, going to its three-headed monster to chew up the turf and chew up the clock, keep the ball out of Lamar Jackson’s hands and score just enough to somehow prevail in a low-scoring game.
If the game turned into a high-scoring shootout, forget about it.
• And absolutely don’t try to pass the ball. Louisville has a good pass defense and Kentucky’s passing game is a mess, a season-long smorgasbord of hurried throws and dropped balls.
If Kentucky tries to throw the ball against the Cardinals, forget about it.
• And if all those pieces fall precisely into place and Kentucky doesn’t commit the wrong penalties at the wrong time and doesn’t turn the ball over and if the emotions of a rivalry game create enough of an anything-can-happen environment, there might be a glimmer of a chance – at least to keep it close and avoid embarrassment.
But, mostly, forget about it.
I don’t know where the accolades ought to rest following Saturday’s improbable 41-38 win. My first choice is Stephen Johnson, who suddenly became a Division I SEC college quarterback. He more than managed the game, more than handed off to Bennie, Boom and Jojo, and got out of the way. He kept bringing the offense back together after every Louisville score, stepped up and threw with confidence and ran the ball confidently too.
My second “player of the game” is Eddie Gran, who came in knowing that Louisville would be overplaying the Kentucky run and called some daring upfield passes. And then, when the running game just never got going, he kept mixing up the offense, letting Johnson throw the ball. Even though some of Gran’s play-calling had someone in my house screaming at the television, he ultimately reinforced what I feel deep-down is the essence of the coach-fan relationship: They know more than we do.
Of course, Austin MacGinnis, who has become the reliable X-factor of this offense all season, calmly sliced the uprights for yet another of his most important kicks of the season.
And I don’t want to ignore Ryan Timmons, forgotten man of the Kentucky offense, who played an outstanding game at the end of his senior season.
Finally, respect to Mark Stoops, whose fourth Kentucky team was in shambles, not just 0-2 but 0-and-humiliating. He did whatever it is coaches do and say on the practice field, on the sidelines, in the locker room, and he gave the defense pride and the offense cohesiveness.
He also gave the defense Jordan Jones and the offense Bennie Snell. I don’t know of any observers who’ll truly say that on September 1, they knew those two individuals were the keys to Kentucky’s finally-at-last winning season.
The margin for error was so slender Saturday that every time Kentucky failed to capitalize on a situation and put the ball back into Jackson’s hands, I said to myself, “Well, this is it. Nice try, good effort, just not enough.”
But this team kept pulling a surprise out of its gym bag, better than a “nice try,” stronger than a “good effort” and, at the end of the game, more than “enough.”
You know, even if Jackson had not fumbled – if it were the front of his hand and not the back, or whatever that incomprehensible rule says, yet another of football’s impossibly fussy and convoluted regulations – and if Louisville had won the game, it would have been a successful afternoon for Stoops’ Troops. Keeping it close, matching the high-powered Cardinals score for score, filling the afternoon sky with their own big-yardage passing attack.
But Jackson did fumble.
And so now on to wherever the bowl gods send them. And here again, this win was so important. Kentucky went from a 6-6 team just squeaking into eligibility to a 7-5 team and winner of seven of its last 10, five of seven, including a season-ending win over a near-BCS-level opponent.
Oops. Did I say season-ending? Sorry, just reflex. This year, the season doesn’t end with the Louisville game. The season doesn’t end with Stoops congratulating Petrino at midfield. The season doesn’t end with Kentucky’s players wishing they could have done a better job for the seniors.
It ends with a game in late December.
What a win! VT