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Kentucky rallies for rare 29-26 victory over rival Tennessee to reach bowl eligibility

By Keith Taylor
Kentucky Today

Benny Snell fumbled the ball away in his first carry against Tennessee Saturday night. He more than made up for the miscue, rushing for season-high 180 yards and three touchdowns in an 29-26 triumph over Tennessee.

The victory gave the Wildcats their second over the Volunteers in the past six years. Kentucky ended a 26-game losing streak to Tennessee with a 10-7 win here at Kroger Field in 2011. More importantly, the Wildcats (6-2, 3-2 Southeastern Conference) also obtained bowl eligibility for the second straight season with four games remaining.

Stephen Johnson’s TD late in the fourth quarter gave the Wildcats a 29-26 win over Tennessee Saturday night (UK Athletics Photo)

“There’s been many times when we have played some good football and came up on the wrong end (in the series),” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. “We have done that here. And so it was really nice to be on the other end to just hang in there. But I have to give so much credit, number one, to our football team the way they hung in there in difficult, difficult times.”

Snell had his way against the Vols in the first half, rushing for 124 yards on 15 carries. Snell scored all three of Kentucky’s touchdowns in the first half and put the finishing touches on the narrow victory when he caught a two-point conversion for the final margin. Stephen Johnson’s 11-yard touchdown run one play earlier was the game clincher for the Wildcats.

Johnson hurt his left and non-throwing shoulder in the third quarter and come back in the final frame and it was his plunge into the end zone with 34 seconds remaining that sealed the deal for the Wildcats. Stoops said Johnson’s overall performance was “amazing.”

“There’s not many players that probably would have came back and even played in that situation,” Stoops said. “He’s absolutely tough as nails and we have so much respect and pride for him and our team does and he led us tonight and led us on that drive and like I said, I don’t think many players would have played in that situation.”

Johnson complemented Kentucky’s rushing attack with 84 yards on six carries. Overall, the Wildcats rushed for a season-high 289 yards and made up for last week’s dismal showing in a 45-7 loss at Mississippi State.

“I know the team last week wasn’t us,” Snell said. “That wasn’t Kentucky football. We didn’t have anything to prove or anything like that, but we were at home, it was an SEC opponent, so we just had to come out with that fire. The last game wasn’t us and that’s behind us, but we knew we had to get back.”

The Wildcats overcame four turnovers — all fumbles — and last-second 48-yard heave by the Volunteers at the 3-yard line as time expired to pull off the narrow victory.

“I’m just proud of this team,” said Johnson, whose left shoulder was in a sling following the contest. “Even though we turned the ball over a few times, we kept on fighting.”

During his two years as Kentucky’s starter, Johnson has helped guide the Wildcats to an 18-5 record during the past 23 regular-season games and led the Wildcats to victories over Mississippi State and Louisville last season. He said the win over the Vols “comes close” to matching the wins over the Bulldogs and Cardinals last season.

“It really means a lot just to get us to six wins and to keep moving down the line in our conference and in our schedule,” he said. “I mean, we have to keep going up from here basically.”

Still winless in the SEC, Tennessee (3-5, 0-5) was without running back and leading rusher John Kelly, who was suspended after being cited for marijuana possession earlier this week. Freshman Ty Chandler picked up the slack and rushed for a career-high 120 yards and scored two touchdowns, also setting a career high. Tennessee coach Butch Jones praised his team’s ability to compete despite a dark cloud hovering over the program this season.

“That wasn’t a team that had given up,” he said. “No, that team hung together and that team battled and I think it is a testament to them, but again we are making way too many mistakes in critical stages of the game. This team has not given up.”

Johnson left in the third quarter with a shoulder issue following a 34-yard run. Backup Drew Barker’s fumble on his second snap resulted in a 30-yard field goal for the Volunteers, giving the hosts a 23-21 lead with 3:49 remaining in the third quarter. Johnson returned on the next series but a fumble on a completion to Garrett Johnson led to a 45-yard Tennessee field goal to give the Vols a 26-21 lead with 13:24 remaining. Tennessee was held scoreless for the remainder of the contest and the Wildcats made good on their final and decisive drive.

Streak ends: Prior to Chandler’s 1-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, Tennessee had not scored an offensive touchdown in the previous 14 quarters. The Vols made two field goals on three attempts in the opening quarter. Tennessee scored two touchdowns — both by Chandler — in the second frame.

Passing Wildcat: Kentucky freshman Lynn Bowden, a former standout quarterback at Warren Harding High School in Youngstown, Ohio, completed a 36-yard strike to Tavin Richardson out of the “Wildcat” formation in the second quarter, a pass that set up Snell’s 1-yard touchdown to give the Wildcats a 21-13 advantage.

Touchback scuffle: Following Kentucky’s first touchdown in the first quarter — a 6-yard run by a Benny Snell — a brief scuffle between the two teams ensued, resulting in multiple unsportsmanlike fouls. Two plays later, Chandler had an 80-yard touchdown called back because of a holding penalty.

“I haven’t seen anything like that either,” Stoops said. “We tried to tell them, I mean, it’s about playing the game, between the white lines and I think the officials did a good job because once it started early, they were putting their thumb on it. So that’s why it was called so close and I can’t argue with that. It’s a big rivalry game and we had, it got really chippy in the Florida game like that as well and they had to put their thumb on it.”

Championship reunion: Members of Kentucky’s bowl championship teams from 2006-09, including former coach Rich Brooks, along with Randall Cobb, Jacob Tamme and Wesley Woodyard were honored at halftime. Brooks led the Wildcats to four consecutive bowl appearances in his last four seasons as coach, including back-to-back victories in the Music City Bowl in Nashville. Approximately 100 former players, coaches and managers attended a dinner Friday night at the Woodford Reserve Club at Kroger Field.

“Coach Brooks back here and all the bowl teams and the bowl victors and coach told me, he’s like, get this one. He said, I was never able to get Tennessee and it was important for him for us to get that and for to win and for all the ex-players that are here and build our tradition and it’s important to me and these players, we’re very prideful when they came back and coach Brooks talked to the team and Randall Cobb came and talked to the team and seeing Wesley (Woodyard) here and I saw Avery (Williamson) earlier today and just all the players that are back, it means a lot and we want to keep on winning and we do it for them as much as the fans and everybody else in the program,” Stoops said.

Gametracker: Mississippi at Kentucky, 4 p.m., Saturday. TV/Radio: SEC Network, 98.1 FM, WBUL.

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.

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