For every high, there’s been a low.
The 2018 Kentucky football season began with plenty of preseason promise, but was quickly brought down to Earth. Mark Stoops began his season-opening press conference by announcing that two members of the football family were fighting cancer.
“That in a way unified the team even more,” Mark Stoops said in Orlando. “What Josh Paschal’s gone through and Coach Schlarman, it keeps things in perspective. This is still just a game. It’s very important. It’s a way of life for us. Obviously we know how important that is and how many people we effect, but when you start looking at things like that, it keeps things in perspective and our team has really rallied around those two.”
The results were immediate. In the second game of the season, the 2018 Wildcats did something no other team had done since 1986: Beat Florida. A total team effort, UK’s success started up front.
“I’m going to award John Schlarman the game ball,” Stoops said after the game. “That offensive line, those tight ends blocked. We rushed the ball for 300 yards at Florida. That’s a pretty good number…He’s a strong man. He’s going through a lot. I was grateful to be able to get him a win and of course, we got one for Josh Paschal. Great team victory.”
The emotional victory removed a monkey off the program’s back. Finally free to reach new heights, the Cats weren’t prepared for what would happen just a week later.
In the final moments of Kentucky’s win over Murray State, tragedy struck. While leaving Kroger Field with his family, four-year old Marco Shemwell was struck by a vehicle in a fatal accident. The football team served as honorary pallbearers at Marco’s funeral.
Shemwell’s legacy has remained with the football team throughout the season, all the way to Orlando. Marco’s brother Max joined the team during an outing at a local amusement park.
“It means a lot,” C.J. Conrad said. “I know it touches their heart, it definitely touches ours. This season’s been extremely emotional, and those people are a part of our family. To do this today, I know it means a lot to them, and it certainly means a lot to us, as well.”
Marco was not the only child closely connected to the program. Stoops welcomed Luke Klausing, an 11-year-old with Cystic Fibrosis, to the team this fall.
“He’s like our little brother. He’s like our teammate,” said Kash Daniel. “It always makes our day better when Luke is here and he comes and dabs you up. He always has a smile on his face and brings that positive vibe and energy to practice or a game, whenever we see him. It’s really cool to him around. We’re happy to have him and his family with us.”
When Kentucky beat Missouri in an improbable, walk-off win, Klausing was on Lonnie Johnson’s shoulders, celebrating on the field. The unlikely last-second win at Missouri set up the biggest game in modern Kentucky football history. The Big Blue Nation was hysterical leading into the matchup with Georgia for an SEC East title.
The euphoria was not meant to last. Georgia overwhelmed the Cats. The hangover lasted all the way to Knoxville. A New Year’s Six bowl berth was eliminated, but the bad vibes would not linger.
Senior Day was a perfect Hollywood script. For the first time since he was diagnosed with malignant melanoma, Josh Paschal entered the gridiron as a starter for the Kentucky Wildcats. The Kroger Field crowd gave Paschal a standing applause after he recorded his first tackle.
Paschal’s teammates rallied around him. Mike Edwards had a Pick Six and a forced fumble in the first five plays. As Middle Tennessee tried to claw back into the game, Josh Allen made plays, and history. The outside linebacker recorded a pair of sacks to become the Cats’ all-time leading sacker. Allen parlayed that record into a handful of National Defensive Player of the Year Awards and consensus All-American honors.
“I told myself from the beginning of the season that I was going to play the whole season,” Allen said this week. “I’m going to finish with my team, make history and break records.”
Allen and the rest of Kentucky’s seniors put the perfect cherry on top of the season, a 46-point win over Louisville, the largest margin of victory in the Battle of the Governor’s Cup. This group of seniors has accomplished almost everything.
“We didn’t walk off the field with a (bowl) trophy,” said Stoops.
To give Mark Stoops his first bowl trophy as a head coach, the Cats must take down Penn State, a Big 10 power that has often been compared to Mississippi State. When the Bulldogs came to town in September, Benny Snell came prepared to play. The record-breaking running back played the best game of his career, rushing for 165 yards and four touchdowns in a dominant performance by the underdogs. If Snell can rush for 107 yards to break the school’s career rushing record tomorrow, the underdogs should win their tenth game of the season for only the third time in school history.
The 2018 Wildcats rode a wave of emotion throughout the season and turned every negative into a positive. This team’s story has been filled with plenty of twists and turns. The Citrus Bowl is the final stop. A history-making happy ending awaits.