In Bowl Loss, UK Shows Fight Building the Program Demands
Mark Stoops wasn’t counting his chickens before they hatched, but he knew what he was going to do if Kentucky got in the end zone.
He was going for the two-point conversion. He was going for the win in regulation.
“He already had said, before I had run the quarterback on the run play,” offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said. “He said, ‘If you score, do your two-point play.’ “
On the run play, Stephen Johnson crashed into the end zone from nine yards out. All of a sudden, UK was down by a single point with 37 seconds left. Stoops and Gran didn’t hesitate to follow through on the decision.
The decision was borne out of both an aggressive mentality and a sense of confidence in a play the Wildcats had worked repeatedly leading up to Friday’s Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. The pass play gave Johnson multiple options based on the coverage Northwestern called, coverage the purple-clad Wildcats needed two different timeouts to settle on.
Through it all, UK didn’t waver. The Cats just happened to come up inches short, as Johnson’s pass glanced off the hands of a closely guarded Tavin Richardson and onto the turf of Nashville’s Nissan Stadium. Kentucky’s comeback bid, as well as its season, ended shortly thereafter in a 24-23 defeat.
“We came up inches short and that hurts,” Stoops said. “It hurts. I hurt for these players more than anything, because they laid it on the line, competed. They had great preparation, they had great focus and put ourselves in a position to win a football game, and sometimes you come up yards and inches off.”
The margin being so slim, the loss – which gave UK a 7-6 record to close 2017 – was a tough one to swallow. It was made tougher by the cheers of Northwestern’s celebration echoing nearby during UK’s postgame press conference, the kind of celebration the Cats wanted for the seniors playing their final game.
“I hate it for our seniors that we didn’t finish,” Gran said. “I hate it. This is tough. But they did compete their rear end off. I am proud of them for that. They battled.”
No one battled more than Johnson, the quarterback who won his way into the hearts of fans and teammates alike with incredible toughness and an unwavering will to win. He nearly engineered one last improbable comeback, as UK was down 10 after Johnson threw an interception that Kyle Quiero returned for a touchdown with 7:49 left.
For the game, Johnson threw for 257 yards and ran for two touchdowns, overcoming a pair of injuries that sidelined him for the final drive of the first half and a play early in the fourth quarter.
“He’s like a quarterback god to me,” Benny Snell Jr. said. “I’ve seen that man take too many hits that you don’t come back from. He’s overcome so much adversity. That’s one of the greatest quarterbacks that I’ve been beside of. He has a lot of heart and I’m so happy for him. He had a great journey.”
Snell would have given anything to be on the field for the last leg of that journey, but the record-setting sophomore running back was ejected in the second quarter. He was limited to six carries, 15 yards and a touchdown on the game’s opening drive after he was deemed to have contacted an official and subsequently flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct.
He spent the remainder of the game in the locker room, forced to watch as his team didn’t wilt in the face of his ejection and a 17-7 halftime deficit.
“They fought hard, they fought strong and I’m very proud of my team,” Snell said. “I’m proud of the seniors. I’m proud of everybody.”
The Cats had pride in common after their season-ending loss, painful as that loss was. UK went toe to toe with a Northwestern team that closed the season 10-3 with eight straight wins, in spite of all that went wrong.
“It says a lot about the identity of our team and the character,” Stoops said. “I appreciate it and we fought and we played and we talked about it at halftime: We’re going to go out there to compete to win this football game and that’s what we tried to do.”
Nonetheless, a loss is a loss. That had Gran thinking about what UK will need to do to push the program forward this offseason and beyond.
“For us to take the next step, we’ve got to be more consistent on offense to try to put people away and be able to finish,” Gran said.
Those next steps will happen without a group of seniors that has poured all it had into the program. The seniors don’t intend to stop doing that.
“I told them after the game, ‘It’s simple. Just come back and make it happen,’ ” senior Courtney Love said. “I think they will do that. We have a strong group. We’ve gotten so much stronger this year. I can’t wait to continue to watch them. … I’m still going to be around and I’m still going to pour into these guys. It’s not the end for me or any of these other guys.”
Neither is it the end for Kentucky football. Not even close.
“These guys have worked extremely hard to put ourselves in position to win the games and go to back-to-back bowl games and have the opportunity to win seven, eight, nine games,” Stoops said. “That’s not always been the case. These guys have laid the foundation and I know each and every one of them—and as Courtney alluded to within the locker room, that he wants them to continue to push the program and innovate the program and take it to another level. I anticipate we’ll do that.”