LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — A Saturday night that was supposed to be focused on Kentucky’s seniors ended with two of them carrying Wildcats coach Joker Phillips off the field on their shoulders.
That’s how elated and relieved the Wildcats were after a 34-3 domination of Samford that ended an eight-game losing streak.
More than two months had passed since Kentucky (2-9) experienced that winning feeling and a lot had changed. Phillips was fired as coach on Nov. 4 but decided to return to coach against Samford before finishing the season on Saturday at Tennessee.
His final game at Commonwealth Stadium was one to remember.
“I’m numb to all this,” Phillips said. “I understand it. But it’s a numbing feeling that you just realize it’s time to go. It’s time to go, and I understand that. Very seldom do you get 10 years at a place.”
On being carried off the field, he added, “I’m glad I was able to experience that with the seniors.”
Through it all, Phillips tried to keep the attention focused on the players and especially his departing seniors. They wasted no time ending their skid.
Jalen Whitlow passed for one touchdown and ran for another as Kentucky scored on six of its first eight drives. Raymond Sanders rushed for a career-high 123 yards and a TD.
“I’m very grateful to win,” Sanders said, “and we want to try to continue that and hopefully win out next week and send them (the seniors) out on back-to-back wins (with another) against Tennessee.”
The Wildcats scored their highest point total since beating Kent State 47-14 on Sept. 8.
Whitlow completed 10 of 13 passes for 66 yards and an 11-yard touchdown to senior wide receiver Gene McCaskill. He also rushed for a 20-yard touchdown and finished with 59 yards on seven carries.
Sanders rushed for a 14-yard touchdown that made it 24-3. Tristian Johnson followed with a 25-yard fumble return for a touchdown.
Kentucky outgained Samford 455-102 including 342 yards rushing compared to minus-2 for Samford.
Cameron Yaw’s 41-yard field goal provided the only points for Samford (7-4).
“It was not one of our better days offensively,” Samford coach Pat Sullivan said. “We’ll remember that one for the offseason and work to get better on it when we start back next year.”
As for the Wildcats, there were plenty of contributors.
Dyshawn Mobley rushed for 82 yards on 16 carries and Jonathan George added 76 on 17 attempts.
Craig McIntosh kicked field goals of 35 and 43 yards as Kentucky won its third straight home finale.
To put Kentucky’s win in perspective, consider these numbers:
The Wildcats’ 31 first-half points alone were their most since a 32-31 overtime loss to Western Kentucky that started their skid.
Kentucky’s 266 first-half yards were six more than it totaled in a 40-0 loss to Vanderbilt here two weeks ago, the breaking point leading to Phillips’ firing the next day.
Even more impressive, the Wildcats held Bulldogs running back Fabian Truss to just 37 yards a week after he rushed for a career-high 219 against Elon. And they hadn’t held an opponent below 200 yards since limiting Akron to 172 on Sept. 18, 2010.
It didn’t matter that Kentucky was facing Football Championship Subdivision member Samford for the first time. After going winless for more than two months the Wildcats were just desperate for a victory and the Bulldogs entered the game on a two-game winning streak.
Sentiment also drove Kentucky, which honored 19 seniors in a pregame ceremony. Though their presence has been somewhat overshadowed this season by 46 freshmen and sophomores playing substantial minutes, the underclassmen wanted to make sure the veterans’ home finale was memorable.
“It’s the last game at Commonwealth Stadium,” senior wide receiver La’Rod King said. “The fans are great. Great memories, bad memories, fun memories, all of them. I’m just happy I had the opportunity to come here and play. I really enjoyed myself. I’ll never forget these things. I’m thankful.”
McCaskill then made his case for Kentucky’s seniors on the opening drive.
He capped a 14-play, 69-yard drive by pulling in Whitlow’s 11-yard pass for a touchdown that set the tone for a performance last seen against Kent State.
Whitlow made it 14-0 on the next possession with a nifty 20-yard touchdown run in which he initially hesitated, then cut through the middle and the right before getting outside and clearing the pile-on.
“They came out with a little chip on their shoulders and played well,” Sullivan said of the Wildcats.
It followed a bizarre play in which nobody — except maybe Samford defensive end Brinson Porter — was sure if officials had blown the play dead. There was no whistle, Porter kept on charging and dropped Sanders for a 3-yard loss.
That was one of few first-half highlights for the Bulldogs, who gained just 56 yards in the first half. Even when Samford recovered Sanders’ goal-line fumble, its drive went nowhere and Greg Peranich’s subsequent punt went just 31 yards.
Sanders sprinted 14 yards for Kentucky’s third TD four plays later for a 24-3 lead.
Another miscue followed on the Bulldogs’ next possession when Andy Summerlin fumbled while being sacked by Donte Rumph. Tristian Johnson scooped up the loose ball and returned it 25 yards for the touchdown that made it 31-3.