Despite trailing by 14 points with less than eight minutes in the fourth quarter, the Kentucky football team celebrated its 100th Homecoming anniversary on Saturday night at The New CWS in thrilling fashion, notching a 34-27 comeback overtime victory over in-state foe Eastern Kentucky University.
Kentucky rallied from a 27-13 deficit late in the fourth quarter with back-to-back game-saving drives. Facing a fourth-and-3 at the end of regulation, Patrick Towles stood in the face of a blitz and found Dorian Baker for a 5-yard touchdown to force overtime.
The duo connected again in overtime with a 3-yard pitch-and-catch to take a 34-27 lead. CJ Johnson, who recorded 19 tackles, the most by a defensive lineman in program history, fittingly sealed the outcome with a game-clinching sack.
“We just feel very fortunate,” explained head coach Mark Stoops. “That’s the word that jumps out at me right now. Give EKU credit. I feel like they coached better than we did, they played with much greater energy and enthusiasm and executed better than we did. Fortunately, we had some guys step up and make some plays late. I am very proud of our team and our determination to stay with it and to finish the game and somehow find a way to get the victory.”
The Wildcats retain an unblemished all-time record against the Colonels and advance to 4-1 on the season with the victory. EKU falls to 2-2.
Coupled with 2014’s opening five games, it marks the first time that UK has been 4-1 for two consecutive seasons since 1976-77.
Towles rebounded from a two-interception first half to lead the offense for the Wildcats, connecting on 29-of-42 pass attempts for 329 yards and three touchdowns to go along with a rushing score. Towles surpassed the 300-yard mark for the first time this season and the fourth of his career.
The duo of Baker and Blake Bone carried the offense in receiving with 86 and 85 yards, respectively. Both bested their career highs by more than 20 yards each, and Baker’s two touchdowns, which included the game-tying and game-winning catches, is a career best for the wide receiver.
Regarding Baker’s game-tying touchdown on fourth down, Coach Stoops praised the sophomore, calling it a “great individual effort…He just went up and made a play. And, boy, that’s hard to put into context how important that was. So, just a great play. We saw it, we had some other options on the play, and we saw him in one-one-one and he’s a big guy, so we went to it.”
Jojo Kemp led the ground attack with 46 yards and one touchdown on 14 carries.
Kentucky stayed in the game thanks to standout defensive performances by a number of players.
Eight of Johnson’s 19 tackles were solo stops, including a sack and two-and-a-half tackles for loss. Ryan Flannigan was one tackle off his career best with 11 tackles, Josh Forrest recorded double-digit tackles with 10 stops on the night, and Farrington Huguenin blocked a field goal and recovered a fumble.
For the Colonels, Bennie Coney paced the offense with 19-of-32 passing for 183 yards and two touchdowns. The pair of Thomas Ethan and Dy’Shaw Mobley combined for nearly 160 of EKU’s 180 rushing yards with 84 yards and 74 yards, respectively. Mobley also led the team in receiving with 50 yards on five catches.
The first quarter had nearly expired before Kentucky struck first to open up the scoring. Towles found Jeff Badet on the left sideline to move the offense down the field before a pass interference granted 15 yards for the Wildcats.
With pressure on the UK quarterback, Towles peeled right and launched Bone a pass to the 1-yard line for a 40-yard catch. The reception not only got the Wildcats within prime scoring range, but it marked a career-long catch for Bone. Towles completed the drive with a 1-yard carry to put Kentucky up 7-0 with 51 seconds remaining in the quarter.
Though the Wildcats were unable to put any points on the board for the first 14 minutes, the UK defense was nearly impenetrable in the first three EKU possessions, preventing the Colonels from attaining a first down and allowing just 32 yards of total offense. EKU was able to ramp up its offense following Kentucky’s touchdown and scramble its way to a first down, but the Wildcats responded with a forced fumble from Josh Forrest, which was picked up by Farrington Huguenin.
Kentucky was unable to hold on to the ball for long as its drive off the fumble recovery was sullied by Stanle Absanon with a high-flying interception and 22-yard return. The defensive display roused the EKU troops, which relied heavily on Thomas to move the chains into the red zone. Coney capped off the drive with a 6-yard pass to Devin Borders, but the extra point attempt by Lucas Williams ricocheted off the uprights to keep Kentucky in the lead with a 7-6 edge and 4:13 to play in the half.
Neither team was able to add to their point total by the close of the half. The Colonels had the opportunity to take the lead by way of a field goal, but Huguenin made another highlight play by blocking Williams’s attempt.
Eastern Kentucky opened up the second half with a productive ground attack. Following a 42-yard kick return by Absanon, Thomas took control of rushing duties and got the Colonels into the red zone before Coney started handing off to Mobley, who muscled his way to the 1-yard line on three consecutive carries. Coney hit pay dirt to swing the lead in favor of EKU, with a successful point after attempt giving the Colonels a 13-7 lead with 10:59 in the third quarter.
The Wildcats quickly responded with a 75-yard drive thanks to a pair of 30-plus-yard lobs. Baker started things off with a 32-yard reception, just one yard shy of his career best. After a handful of carries, Towles slung the ball 36 yards to Badet in the end zone. The UK wide receiver leapt and caught the ball at full extension to bring it in for his second touchdown of the season, but a wide-right PAT left the score deadlocked at 13-13 with 8:18 on the clock.
In their first possession of the fourth quarter, the Colonels mirrored their third-quarter scoring drive. Absanon darted through defenders for a 22-yard punt return to set up a Mobley-reliant offense. With six yards between himself and the goal, Mobley broke through for a touchdown and the extra point relinquished the edge to EKU. The Colonels would score again off a 15-yard pass to Borders, extending their lead to 27-13 with 7:39 remaining.
Kentucky did not back down, with Towles fanning out his options through the air between four different receivers. A 9-yarder to Bone got the Wildcats into the red zone once more, and UK quickly found the end zone with a 6-yard rush from Jojo Kemp. With just under five minutes left in the contest, Kentucky trailed 27-20.
Relentless defense soon put the ball back into the hands of the Wildcats, with a scoring drive sparked by Ryan Timmons’ 19-yard punt return that put UK on the EKU 39-yard line. Another 15-yard pass interference penalty put the team within 12 yards of touchdown territory, but Kentucky soon found itself at fourth-and-3.
Unwavering in the face of pressure, Towles sailed a pass into the hands of Baker for a touchdown, with the extra point knotting the score at 27-27. EKU was unable to score with the remaining 47 seconds in regulation time, sending the game into overtime.
The Wildcats started overtime with the ball and wasted no time in capitalizing on the opportunity. Towles handed off to Kemp for a pair of rushes before finding Baker open in the end zone for his second touchdown of the evening, marking a new career high for the sophomore.
The Kentucky defense stiffened against EKU on the final possession of the game, with Jabari Johnson recording a 12-yard tackle for loss and Johnson capping off his career night with a sack for an 8-yard loss, clinching the dramatic comeback win for the Wildcats.
Looking back on the contest, Coach Stoops remarked, “I’ll be honest, it wasn’t looking good. It really wasn’t. I’m human and we were certainly going to fight and finish that game. We had to get a spark offensively and we finally got that and got a little energy going. Gave the fans something to cheer about, gave our team a little bit of juice. We get the score, cut it to seven, the defense gets a stop. I just feel very fortunate to get the win.”