The University of Kentucky defeated UofL 23-16 in Charlie Strong's first game in front of 55,327 fans at new-and-improved Papa John's Cardinal Stadium in the season-opener for both schools.
The Cardinals trailed 23-6 early in the third quarter, but rallied to within a touchdown late before the Wildcats went to the "Wildcat" formation for three straight plays with a little more than three minutes to play to kill the clock, and ultimately the Cards.
"I was pleased with the way we came back and played in the second half," Strong said. "I was pleased with the way the guys hung in there...I was pleased with our overall effort."
Do-everything UK junior Randall Cobb accounted for 150 all-purpose yards and a touchdown, while senior running back Derrick Locke rushed for 104 yards and two TDs to give the Cats their fourth straight victory in the series and fellow first-year coach Joker Phillips his first victory.
That helped offset an 153-yard performance - which included an electrifying 80-yard touchdown run - from UofL senior running back Bilal Powell. The Cats rolled up 466 yards of total offense, compared to the Cards' 317. UofL's Adam Froman lost the efficient quarterback battle, completing 14 of 29 passes for 127 yards with one interception. However he did have several critical drops by his receivers.
"I thought Froman did an outstanding job," Strong said. "He had some drops, so the stats may not show that."
The Charlie Strong Era began the way Cards' fans hoped it wouldn't - with two UK plays and a touchdown.
"The first half we kind of got shell-shocked," Strong said.
On the game's first play from scrimmage Hartline connected with La'Rod King over the top for 38 yards. On the Cats' next play Locke's tackle-avoiding 32-yard TD run made it 6-0 UK. Trinity High School graduate Ryan Tydlacka missed the PAT. UofL's first possession of the season began with a first down - after a pair of strong run by Powell - but quickly ended in a punt.
The Cards got some help on their second possession - with a pass interference penalty on UK cornerback Anthony Mosley, who was defending sophomore receiver Andrell Smith - but it also ended in a punt.
Josh Bleser's booming 49-yard kick pinned the Cats at their own 8, but the Cards' fans joy was short-lived. UK embarked on a 10-play, 92-yard drive that Locke capped off with a 1-yard TD run. The big play in that march came on third-and-3 at the UK 39 when UofL cornerback Johnny Patrick failed in his try to pick off a Hartline pass. It resulted in a 17-yard connection between Hartline and Chris Matthews, and a keep-the-drive-alive first down.
Victor Anderson answered the score with a 67-yard kickoff return that moved the Cards across midfield for the first time in the game.
Things nearly took a turn for the worse on the first play of the second period when Froman was hit by UK defensive end DeQuin Evans as he threw. It initially looked like a fumble, but was eventually ruled an incomplete pass.
Chris Philpott followed with a 44-yard field goal to make it 13-3.
But it was right back to reality for UofL fans as UK scored in only four plays. Three of those involved Cobb and they included an 11-yard reception to start the drive, a spectacular one-handed grab on second-and-long and a 51-yard scoring run around the left end.
Needing to counter, the Cards did. They embarked on a clock-eating drive (8 minutes, 8 seconds) that resulted in three points (a 32-yard field goal by Philpott). UofL could've, and probably should've had more, though. It had first-and-goal at the UK 5 before a holding penalty pushed the Cards back to the 15. On first down Froman threw incomplete to the end zone with a pass that Smith had a chance to catch.
UofL had a chance to trim UK's lead even more before halftime. A 28-yard punt return by Doug Beaumont, off a 62-yard punt by Tydlacka, gave UofL the ball at its own 46 with 2:44 left in the quarter. But it didn't work out well for the ‘Ville. The Cards went three-and-out and went into the locker room down 13 points at halftime.
"I just brought them in and told the defense, ‘We gave up too many big plays,' and we could not let that happen again," Strong said. "And offensively I told them, 'Just score touchdowns.'"
The second half started off well for UofL. Powell reeled off runs of 21 and 12 yards to give the Cards the ball at the UK 43. However Troy Pascley dropped a pass from Froman on first down, then a reverse by Pascley was snuffed out perfectly by Cats' cornerback Martavius Neloms for a 10-yard loss.
After a Bleser punt put UK at its own 16 the Cats covered 61 yards in nine plays - the biggest was a 33-yard third-down completion from Hartline to the 6-foot-5 Matthews, who out-jumped the 6-0 Patrick - and took a 23-6 lead on Tydlacka's 41-yard field goal.
Then, just went it looked like the Cards could be in big trouble, Powell came up with the biggest play of the game. He reeled off an 80-yard TD run on UofL's first play from scrimmage after the kickoff, taking the handoff from Froman, stopping, then blowing untouched through the left side of the line.
"Bilal Powell is a special player," Strong said. "Bilal is a special football player...That was a big momentum changer for us."
The Cards had a chance to pull closer after stopping the Cats but Froman, throwing off his back foot, was picked off by UK's Mychal Bailey at the Cats' 23.
UofL stopped UK again and got the ball back. But on the Cards' subsequent second play from scrimmage Powell fumbled the ball away to UK. Central High School graduate Ridge Wilson recovered at the Cards' 28. However the turnover didn't turn out to be the end of the world for UofL, because Tydlacka missed a 25-yard field goal try.
UofL took over at its own 20 with 10:24 to play and promptly drove down the field with a couple of big plays and one big penalty. On third-and-8 from its own 22 Froman connected with Beaumont for a 12-yard gain. Then on fourth-and-5 from his own 39 Froman hooked up with Beaumont again, this time for 16 yards, to move into UK territory.Another Froman completion, this one to Andrell Smith for 12 yards, gave the Cards a first down at the Cats' 30.
However after a 1-yard pass play, a sack and an incompletion UofL faced fourth-and-17 at the Cats' 37. On the do-or-die play Froman rolled to his right and threw incomplete to the end zone for Smith. Wilson, however, was flagged for roughing the passer on the play to give the Cards new life. UofL couldn't get into the end zone, though, and settled for Philpott's 27-yard field goal with 3:16 to play.
After the kickoff the Cats took over at their own 20 with Cobb at quarterback. Instead of running he threw successfully to Jordan Aumiller for a 19-yard gain. After Locke rushed for four yards Cobb came back with a 7-yard run of his own to give UK a first down at the 50. After a Moncell Allen run the Cards called their final timeout with 1:17 remaining. On the Cats' next play Locke rushed right for five yards for a first down. UK ran out the clock from there.
"I told them (after the game) we have 11 games to play this year, it's up to you how we bounce back, this isn't last year," Strong said.