LEXINGTON, Ky. (KT) — Kentucky is bowl bound. That much we do know and that’s all that matters. Who and where the Wildcats play over the holidays remains to be seen and that will be determined over the next five weeks.
The 14th-ranked Wildcats (6-1, 4-1 Southeastern Conference), punched their ticket to the postseason with a 14-7 triumph over Vanderbilt Saturday night, giving Kentucky its sixth victory of the season in seven attempts. The next five games will be crucial and the Wildcats control their own destiny and the players aren’t holding back.
“We want this as bad as we want to breathe almost,” Kentucky linebacker Kash Daniel said. “That’s how good of a defense we want to be.”
Kentucky’s offense struggled at times against the Commodores but still managed to collect 280 yards in the ground. Most of that yardage was collected by junior standout Benny Snell, who finished with 169 yards on 32 carries. Despite the impressive yardage, Snell said the Wildcats haven’t reached their peak offensively.
“We really haven’t played our best football yet,” he said.
Coming off a bye week, the Wildcats struggled to get their sixth win. Kentucky fumbled on its first two possessions and appeared to be in cruise control mode for most of the first half. As has been the case this season, the Wildcats’ defense prevented a total first-half collapse and limited the Commodores to just seven points and 141 total yards.
If not for bad luck, the Cats would have had no luck at all. A touchdown return on the opening kickoff of the second half was called back because ion a holding penalty and a Derrick Baity’s interception was also turned back because of a holding call. Both teams missed field goals in the third quarter, but still, the Wildcats found a way to win despite the struggles.
The big breakthrough came when Kash Daniel forced a fumble recovered by Quinton Bohanna on a crucial fourth down stop deep in Kentucky territory late in the fourth quarter. A 7-yard touchdown run by Benny Snell and a fumble recovery by Mike Edwards down the stretch sealed the deal for the Wildcats.
“It says a lot when you’re not playing your best on a tough night, find a way to win, just to get a victory,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. “It means a lot.”
Kentucky remains in contention for its first SEC East division title and a Nov. 3 contest against Georgia will likely determine who will play top-ranked Alabama in the SEC Championship game in December. The Bulldogs made that scenario a possibility following a stunning 36-16 setback at LSU last weekend, proving Georgia is vulnerable and can be beaten on any given Saturday.
The past two years, seven victories were an exciting feat for the Wildcats and playing in the TaxSlayer Bowl two years ago provided an indicator of things to come. The Music City Bowl conflicted with Kentucky’s annual showdown with Louisville on the hardwood. In case you are wondering, this year won’t be a problem, no matter what bowl Kentucky plays in, especially on New Year’s Day.
The upper-tier bowls are starting to take notice of Kentucky. Representatives from the Allstate Sugar Bowl and Citrus Bowl were present Saturday and more of them will likely be on hand when the Wildcats take on Georgia in two weeks.
Kentucky can’t be satisfied with just six wins. This team has the potential to get nine or even reach the double-digit plateau for the first time in decades, exceeding even the most optimistic expectations most gave Stoops and his staff before the season even began.
“Nobody in that locker room is satisfied,” Stoops said. “I told them, never apologize, hold your head high. You’re a 6-1 football team on your way to moving up into the Top 10 and we have another opportunity this week. Win or lose, we always go back to work, look ourselves in the mirror, see what we can do better.”
It’s always easier to reflect on the past and look to the future when you’re winning.
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @keithtaylor21.