Kentucky's defense saves its best for last

January, 2, 2009
1/02/09
10:05
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

Kentucky coach Rich Brooks didn't mince words back in August.

 
 AP Photo/Mark Humphrey
 The Wildcats' defense tightened up in the second half, keeping the Pirates out of the end zone.

He said defense would have to carry the Wildcats this season, a defense Brooks called the most talented and deepest since he took over in Lexington in 2003.

For the first part of this season, Kentucky defenders made their coach look like a prophet and played at a level defensively that had been reserved for offense when Andre Woodson was slinging it around the last few seasons.

But injuries and a tougher schedule caught up with that defense during the second part of the season, and the team limped into the AutoZone Liberty Bowl having lost six of its last eight games.

The Wildcats walked away from that game Friday night, though, with their third straight bowl victory -- a first for Kentucky football -- thanks to a defense that might have saved its best for last.

Kentucky rallied from a 16-3 halftime deficit to win 25-19 over East Carolina. Not only did the Wildcats' defense clamp down on the Pirates in the second half and keep them out of the end zone, but the winning points came via a defensive touchdown.

In one of the more bizarre sequences of the season, Kentucky defensive end Ventrell Jenkins picked up a fumble and scooted 56 yards for a touchdown. Myron Pryor forced the fumble when he stripped East Carolina running back Norman Whitley, and the 285-pound Jenkins quickly transformed into a running back.

His stiff-arm of East Carolina quarterback Patrick Pinkney, who was trying to save the touchdown, was wicked, and Jenkins lumbered in for the winning touchdown with 3:02 to play.

Only a few plays earlier, Kentucky linebacker Micah Johnson had returned an East Carolina fumble for an apparent touchdown after Jeremy Jarmon sacked Pinkney. But the play was reversed when an instant replay review showed that Pinkney's knee was on the ground just before the ball popped loose.

The Wildcats (7-6) won despite scoring just one offensive touchdown. They opened the second half with a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by David Jones.

But nobody in blue was worried about style points.

It's a tribute to Brooks and his staff that they were able to keep things together this season when the injuries started to mount, especially with the Wildcats so limited on offense.

A lot of people chuckled when Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart brought Brooks out of retirement earlier this decade to coach the Wildcats, who were about to feel the brunt of NCAA sanctions.

Nobody's laughing now.

The 67-year-old Brooks has done what he came to do, bring some stability and some respectability back to Kentucky football.

Chris Low | email

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