With Kentucky’s upset of Florida a little more than a fortnight ago, there was an uptick of respect for the Wildcats that confirmed that they are for real when they did not suffer a letdown against LSU last weekend.
The guess here was that Kentucky might suffer an off day when the Tigers showed up in Lexington last Saturday after playing a peak game against the Gators. However, there is abundant carping and complaining in Baton Rouge where fan patience has always been in short supply. Certainly not healthy for a team trying to maintain a contending position in the SEC West.
It also confirms that Mark Stoops and his boys from the Bluegrass State are legitimate and will arrive in Athens, bent on gaining additional national respect. Stoops has broadened his recruiting base, including the state of Georgia. There is not an abundance of high school football players in Kentucky where there is a basketball hoop attached to every tree and every barn door in the state.
Two of Stoops’ overriding objectives has been to upgrade the Wildcat facilities and to recruit in the adjoining state of Ohio with the view that Ohio State can’t take all the players available. His resonating message: “Come our way and play in the Southeastern Conference, the best conference in college football.”
Erk Russell, who was fascinated by the Kentucky setting, never understood why Kentucky did not recruit more outstanding players. He loved the Bluegrass scene and would have enjoyed the handicapping opportunity at the Keeneland Race Course, one of the prettiest horse tracks in the country.
Over the years, it has been obvious — from Wallace Butts to Kirby Smart — that Kentucky has been a “fasten your chinstrap” opponent. The Wildcats have a reputation of always being physically tough.
In 1959, the year the Bulldogs won the Southeastern Conference championship, the Wildcats were so unforgiving on defense, they did not give up a single scoring drive. Georgia won 14-7, but it took two spectacular plays by the Bulldogs’ defense to pull off victory: Larry Lancaster blocked a Wildcat punt for one score, and Bobby Towns intercepted a pass and returned it 43-yards for the second touchdown which enabled the Bulldogs to return home a winner and remain undefeated in SEC competition.
Kentucky was an original member of the Southeastern Conference, but the two schools did not compete in football until 1939 when Wallace Butts became Georgia’s head coach and athletic director. He had coached at Male High in Louisville and got to know the Wildcat athletic officials while coaching there. In his first year as head coach in Athens, he put Kentucky on the Bulldog schedule.
By 1942, Butts had recruited outstanding talent which turned out to be a celebrated year for UGA, which received the Rose Bowl invitation and ultimately won the national championship. Kentucky finished the year 3-6-1, but in the opening game in Louisville, the Wildcats were more than a handful. Georgia won 7-6.
In their all time series with the Wildcats, the Bulldogs hold a 60-12-2 lead and have won as many games in Lexington as they have in Athens, 29. For games decided by seven points or less, Georgia has the advantage, 17-8-2, a reminder of how many close games there have been.
Rex Robinson’s field goal in 1978, you likely remember with Larry Munson screaming “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” when his kick sailed through was one of those close games. His winning kick was for 29 yards with 12 seconds left on the clock which brought about victory, 17-16.
One of my favorite memories in the series came when backup quarterback Cory Phillips passed for 400 yards and four touchdowns in Lexington for a 34-30 victory in 2000. You may remember the Kentucky quarterback, the late Jared Lorenzen who tipped the scales at 285 pounds. Lorenzen had an outstanding game, too, throwing for 528 yards, but the day belonged to Phillips, who walked on at Georgia and experienced two 400 yard passing games. The other was against Georgia Tech with 413 yards passing and two touchdowns in a 27-15 victory. The Touchdown Club of Athens will honor Cory later this fall.