An unknown fan acknowledges the number of all time Kentucky wins over Spurrier.
Eleven seconds, and the ghosts of past failures hang menacingly in the air. The evil genius stalks the opposing sideline ready to deliver the death blow once again. Eleven seconds, and a loyal fan base clings tenuously to an ever-less populated bandwagon. Eleven seconds, and the eventual fate of a coaching staff may well rest with the execution of a suspect defense. The clock ticks, and a season hangs in the balance…
How different is the atmosphere of Kentucky football this week because Cartier Rice deflected Stephen Garcia’s misguided pass, and an alert Anthony Mosley picked it off? Consider the psyche of the team, and the Kentucky faithful at that critical moment. The Cats had lost three straight: an annihilation at the hands of the now not-so-mighty Gators and consecutive heart breakers to the rebellious, but preppy, Black Bears of Mississippi and the Auburn Fighting Cam Newtons. A temperamental faction of the fan base was already questioning the direction of the Kentucky program, and even the more stoic and measured segment was beginning to acknowledge that the season had lost some of its luster. Another gut-wrenching loss, especially at the hands of the hated Coach Superior, would have certainly put these fans over the edge – to frustration or just plain apathy. But this time, the Cats wouldn’t let it happen.
Steve Spurrier no doubt remembered 1993, when Danny Wuerffel coolly threw a TD pass to Chris Doering in an almost identical scenario to the one Spurrier found himself in on Saturday. (Editor’s note for our younger readers: Wuerffel was the 1990’s Tebow. Only 50 pounds lighter, with a bit less edge.) What he did not seem to consider was that he did not have the cerebral Wuerffel pulling the trigger. Instead, he had a mercurial Garcia, a guy who even on his best days has been known to chuck the ball inexplicably through his own goal posts. More importantly, Spurrier’s arrogance didn’t permit him to realize that this was not the same Kentucky team that he has toyed with for 17 straight Saturday meetings. (Give or take a Thursday or two.) This is a new Wildcat program, forged in the image of its modern creator, Rich Brooks, and now led by Kentucky lifer Joker Phillips and crew.
At halftime, with the program facing perhaps its bleakest hour in the last four seasons, Phillips told the team that he wanted to see who had his back. Apparently they all did. The defense, who had been gashed unmercifully in the first half, once again showed their resolve in the second half, and shut down Spurrier’s attack. The offense, playing without senior superstar Derrick Locke, generated 21 first downs against one of the nation’s stingiest defenses. A defense that had stymied number one Alabama just one week prior. More impressively, the Cats made plays when it mattered most, going 9 of 19 on third down and 3 of 3 on fourth, including the game winner to Cobb. Mike Hartline, the Southeastern Conference’s second leading passer, had the back of his coach, even when knocked on his. The gritty effort of a desperate team was a testament to their faith in their head coach.
The fact that the faith of the players was rewarded is enormous for a program constantly seeking validation. The cold truth is that Phillips is a rookie coach. The players appear to have bought in to his program without exception this offseason, but it is only human to need substantive evidence that the work input is not in vain. By producing a top ten victory, Phillips is granted credibility within and without the program. Credibility to teach his players. Credibility to attract better players. Credibility to keep the often fickle fans on his side.
Because of the Cats’ second half performance, and that critical last eleven seconds, the feeling that surrounds the Kentucky football program this week is radically different than what it almost was. Today, Kentucky fans are thinking about tailgating menus for Saturday rather than Turkish amateurism. Kentucky fans are contemplating bowl destinations, and thinking about scenarios in which the East title is still attainable. Because of their play on the field, Kentucky football is still relevant as we move into late October. What’s to say this improving young team can’t bring the same interest to November? Bring on the Dawgs.