By LARRY VAUGHT
Benny Snell ran for over 100 yards and a touchdown. The Kentucky defense came up with three interceptions — the same number Vanderbilt quarterback Kyle Shurmur had thrown in the season’s first nine games.
And that was just in the first half at Vanderbilt Saturday.
The Wildcats — coming off that last-second loss to Ole Miss — spotted Vanderbilt a 7-0 lead in Nashville before charging back to win 44-21 and go to 7-3 on the season for the first time in 10 years.
The victory could have earned Kentucky a return trip to Nashville Dec. 29th for the Music City Bowl even though the game will kick off about the same time the Kentucky-Louisville basketball game ends in Rupp Arena. But Kentucky had a lot of fans at Saturday’s game and would bring a lot more back for the bowl game.
The victory also was important for coach Mark Stoops for another reason — it kicked a provision in on his contract that extends his contract by a year. He now is under contract through the 2022 season and will make $5 million in 2022. But remember that UK has finished .500 or better in SEC play just six times in the last 30 years — and this is the second straight year Stoops has done that. Kentucky has also won seven or more games in a season just three times in 1978, something this team could do now with one more more.
This was just one of those games where Kentucky got breaks the football gods usually don’t bestow on UK.
On the first series of the second half, quarterback Stephen Johnson hit Lynn Bowden with a pass that went for 35 yards. Bowden fumbled and the ball rolled toward the goal line. Several Vandy players — and Bowden — had a chance to get the fumble, but UK senior receiver Charles Walker came out of nowhere to get the recovery at the 1.
The next play Snell — who else — literally walked into the end zone for a 27-7 lead thanks to two crushing blocks by tight ends Justin Rigg and C.J. Conrad and became UK’s all-time leader in rushing touchdowns with 27.
Then after UK’s defense forced a three-and-out, Walker muffed a Vandy punt. But he recovered the ball himself with Vandy defenders bearing down on him. Vanderbilt even got called for pass interference in the end zone to give UK the ball at the 2-yard line to set up King’s second TD for a 34-7 lead — midway of the third quarter.
Again, UK football just does not have things like that go its way so often in the same game.
Or how about this. Vanderbilt finally scored again to stop UK’s 34-0 run and Bowden responded with a 93-yard kickoff return to the 6-yard line and Snell scored on the next play to make it 41-14 behind a crushing block again by Conrad. THAT KIND OF STUFF JUST DOESN’T HAPPEN WITH KENTUCKY FOOTBALL.
The star again was Snell. He finished the game with 17 carries for 116 yards and three scores. He now has 1,013 rushing yards this season and became the first UK player to rush for 1,000 yards in two straight seasons. He’s also just the third player in SEC history with 1,000 rushing yards and 13 rushing touchdowns in his freshman and sophomore seasons. The other two — Herschel Walker and Knowshon Moreno.
Snell told the SEC Network that he had special motivation with UK being a 3-point underdog against a team that had not won a SEC game this year.
“Lot of hate, lot of the doubt we get,” Snell said when asked what motivated him. “We came into this game the underdog. They had us predicted to lose. I just get mad.”
Kentucky amassed 427 yards as quarterback Stephen Johnson was 13 of 17 passing for 195 yards and King ran 15 times for 69 yards and two scores. Vanderbilt finished with 368 total yards — including 308 passing — but was never in the game the second half and piled up a lot of meaningless yards.
“Benny has been so solid and our offensive line loves blocking for him. Credit our offensive line and tight ends for blocking their tails off,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said on the UK Radio Network. “We had to fight adversity early and then we fought back. We played pretty solid across the board.
“It was just good football. They were focused all week. We made good plays on the ball (on defense). We had them off balance early.”
Mike Edwards, Denzil Ware, Jordan Griffin and Derrick Baity all had interceptions for UK. Kentucky had 10 players with three or more tackles and none with more than Edwards’ five. Kentucky had five quarterback sacks and six tackles for loss.
“Every game has been so tight and critical, it was nice to get some younger guys in there (in the second half),” Stoops said. “I am just very proud of our team. They responded the right way.”