Cats defense holds up Hokies to preserve Belk Bowl victory


Kentucky Wildcats defensive end T.J. Carter (90) reaches out to tackle Virginia Tech Hokies quarterback Hendon Hooker (2) during the Belk Bowl football game between Kentucky and Virginia Tech on Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019, at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina. UK won 37-30. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Braden Ramsey

CHARLOTTE, N.C — When the Virginia Tech Hokies forced a fumble at the UK 39-yard line near the end of the third quarter, things looked dire for the Cats. They had been gashed on the ground by Hokie running back DeShawn McClease, allowed two passing touchdowns after allowing just seven during the regular season and given up their 27th point on the prior possession.

They gathered together and held Virginia Tech to a field goal.

A Lynn Bowden interception on the very next drive again put them in a difficult situation. If the Hokies put any more points on the board, the team would have been down two possessions with half a quarter to go.

Three plays and six yards later, they were trotting off the field after just their second forced three-and-out of the game.

It wasn’t the sharpest day of work for the defense, but it showed up at the most critical junctures, allowing Kentucky to march down the field and pick up its second straight bowl victory, 37-30 over Virginia Tech in the last-ever Belk Bowl.

“It was one of the more aggravating games of the year for us… they did some good things and kept us off balance,” head coach Mark Stoops said. “Our players dug in and found some opportunities, found some stops.”

The unit surrendered 301 total yards of offense through the first three quarters, but held the Hokies to just 28 over the final fifteen minutes. It also enabled the Hokies to open 4-for-5 on third down, but did not allow a third down conversion over the final 40:20 of the game.

“They added a little couple wrinkles… it took some time to adjust,” defensive tackle Calvin Taylor Jr. said. “At halftime, we kinda cleaned it up.”

“We just banded together, we all brothers for real, we just like ‘you know, let’s stop this’… and that’s what we did.”

 There was a lot of commotion leading up to the game, including some scuffling a couple hours prior to kickoff and a pair of unsportsmanlike conduct fouls in the first quarter. It was clear that what transpired motivated them.

“Teams’ gotta learn that we’re not the ones to play with,” Taylor Jr. said. “We were ready to get to the game, ready to play… all the disrespect, we take that out on the field… when we get out on the field, that’s where men at. And men don’t do too much talking.”

The 2018 and 2019 seasons are the first consecutive ones to end in bowl victories since 2007 and 2008. And with a Top-25 recruiting class headed to Lexington the program looks to be building higher than it has ever been. In his last game, Taylor Jr. expressed gratitude in his ability to help establish a base.

“I’m super proud… I’m glad to have laid some founding blocks for that, I’m excited to be watching for years to come and see how my school does.”

All the – warranted – attention on Lynn Bowden’s legacy here at Kentucky has somewhat overshadowed Taylor’s. Sophomore linebacker Jordan Wright, who provided the scoop-and-score to end the game, said Calvin has had a big influence on him and the team.

“He been a big brother to me since I stepped foot on campus, and I really appreciate him for that,” he said. “I talked to him yesterday and told him ‘you’re going out with a bang, no matter what’”.

Kash Daniel also strapped on the pads for the last time today, and played a big role in helping the program reach this point. You could sense just how grateful he was for his experience in Lexington.

“We didn’t have a tradition like this until we got here. And now, to see where the program was when we first got here to now… we worked our ass off… everybody involved,” he said. “I owe my life to this place.”

Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart acknowledged the bar for the program has been raised with the recent success, and has complete faith that the best has yet to come.

“We’re not all we can be. I still believe we’ve got more in our tank,” he said. “our destination is to get to Atlanta. That’s our goal. This gives us back-to-back bowl wins, and fosters the belief that we can do those kinds of things.”

“We have the ability, at this program, to think about championships.”