Cats Cement Place in Program Lore
Streaks were snapped. Records were broken. Rivalry games were won, and in dominant fashion to boot.
The 2018 season had already been a remarkable one for Kentucky football, but the Wildcats knew something was missing.
The void – now filled – was shaped exactly like the VRBO Citrus Bowl championship trophy.
“Just as I mentioned on the podium accepting the trophy, it was extremely important to this
team, to all of us, to come home with some hardware, to come home with a trophy,” Mark Stoops said.
The No. 14 Cats (10-3) added the crowning achievement in a season full of them with a thrilling 27-24 victory over No. 12 Penn State (9-4) in their first New Year’s Day bowl appearance in two decades. On the heels of the program’s best regular season in four decades, Kentucky downed a college football blueblood and clinched the third 10-win season in program history.
“Believe me, we had a great belief in our locker room,” Stoops said. “We didn’t have to do anything special, just be us. I was so proud of this team. We had so much fun, it ought to be illegal how much fun we had this week. We had a blast just being with each other and just spending time and enjoying it and taking it in. But then when it was time to go to meetings, time to go to practice, these guys were locked in, they were competitive.”
With all-time greats in Josh Allen and Benny Snell Jr. at the height of their powers in their final appearance as Wildcats, the Cats made their case as one of the best teams ever to wear Blue and White.
“I feel like we’re going to go down as the best team to come out of Kentucky,” Allen said. “That’s how I feel.”
Though other teams can make the same claim, the successes speak for themselves. A potential final top-10 ranking. A road win over a Florida team that thumped Michigan in a New Year’s Six bowl. A pair of other wins over opponents that appeared in final College Football Playoff rankings in Mississippi State and Missouri. Allen’s awards. Snell’s newly minted spot atop UK’s all-time rushing chart.
“I feel like we’ve got a lot of great players on this team,” Allen said. “You know, we haven’t won 10 games in a very long time. We haven’t beat Florida in a very long time. We haven’t broken this many records in a very long time. Just a lot of accomplishments around this team.”
The accomplishments are one thing, but the path the Cats took to get there are what truly define this team.
“For me, I just want BBN and the fans to know that this group, especially with myself, we give our all,” Snell said. “We gave our all through practice. Even when, you know, teams are smack-talking and we’re the underdogs coming into the game, such as Mississippi State or Florida. We set the record straight that this is Kentucky football, we’re not just about to lay down.”
There was never any quit in these Cats. Not when they fell behind at Missouri, lost back-to-back games in November or even when Penn State mounted a furious rally behind Trace McSorley, the program’s all-time winningest quarterback. Outside noise accompanied every roadblock, but it never got the better of this team.
“There’s a lot of pressure and the things like the Florida game and all those things, they have so much information at their fingertips,” Stoops said. “… They have a lot on their plate and they have a lot of pressure. They have to take a lot on their shoulders and you have to be man enough to accept that, look at it, go through the adversity and bounce back, and that’s why it takes seniors and that’s what it takes special guys to be able to handle that.”
Adversity didn’t just come on the field either. The preseason brought cancer diagnoses for two members of the UK family – sophomore Josh Paschal and offensive line coach John Schlarman. Then early in the season, a tragic accident took the life of a young fan outside Kroger Field. A lesser team might have been undone by such things, but not this one.
“With the brotherhood that we created through this team and the adversity that we faced, as well as to overcome, you know, the negative things that happened with the team, we were able to make that a positive and it gave us drive,” Snell said. “(Challenges) such as Josh Paschal, for example, Coach
Schlarman, the (Shemwell) family, little Marco, just things like that, those gave us the extra fight, you know, throughout the season, like, we got something to play for.”
Combine all that – the joy and the pain, the struggle and the triumph – and you have a team for the ages.
“Just as a group, as a team, I feel like there’s no other team, no other legacy that is like this, what we left, so I’m very happy,” Snell said. “I’m very happy with my team.”