Liberty Bowl: Kenticky 25, East Carolina 19
Published 12:00 am Friday, January 2, 2009
By Jeffrey McMurray
MEMPHIS, Tenn. ó Ventrell Jenkins barreled his 285-pound frame 56 yards with the ball in his arm, but it would take some improvisation to reach the end zone and help Kentucky achieve history.
“I saw the quarterback coming and I knew I had to outrun him,” the Wildcats’ defensive end said. “I did two moves in one ó a stiff arm and a high step, and the next thing I know, I was lying in the end zone with my team on top of me.”
Who can blame them? This wasn’t your garden-variety, go-ahead fumble return by a lineman.
No, this one gave Kentucky a 25-19 win over East Carolina in the Liberty Bowl on Friday, and gave the Wildcats a third straight postseason victory ó a distinction not even Bear Bryant’s teams were able to achieve decades earlier.
“I know it wasn’t the Sugar Bowl or the Cotton Bowl like Bear Bryant, but it is significant,” Kentucky coach Rich Brooks said. “I’m very proud of these young men, the whole group of seniors. They accomplished something historic.”
Jenkins was an unpredictable MVP after two straight Music City Bowl wins in which Kentucky’s former record-setting quarterback Andre Woodson led the way.
Kentucky (7-6) never led in this one until the fourth quarter, when fellow lineman Myron Pryor, who had his own 72-yard fumble return TD earlier this year, forced a fumble with about 3 minutes left. In the scramble for the loose ball, Jenkins came up with it and rumbled down the right sideline untouched.
Lones Seiber’s extra point attempt was blocked ó the third blocked extra point of the game and second off Seiber’s foot.
That gave East Carolina (9-5) plenty of time to drive for the win, but the ensuing kickoff was downed at the 1. The Pirates wound up punting four plays later, and Kentucky picked up a first down before running out the clock.
“I told our guys, ‘We only need seven points,”‘ East Carolina coach Skip Holtz said. “I thought we’d find a way, but Kentucky did a nice job.”
Coming off its first Conference USA championship, East Carolina jumped to a 16-3 halftime lead before failing in its attempt to win a third game this season against a team from a BCS conference. It had already defeated West Virginia and ACC champion Virginia Tech.
Moments before Jenkins’ heroics, it appeared Kentucky might get the go-ahead score with another fumble return ó albeit not nearly as long ó by linebacker Micah Johnson. However, instant replay determined East Carolina quarterback Patrick Pinkney was sacked on the play by Memphis native Jeremy Jarmon, so the Pirates retained possession.
Even before that, the Wildcats’ defense missed another chance at a game-breaking play in the fourth quarter when Sam Maxwell’s interception deep in East Carolina territory was negated by a holding penalty on teammate Winston Guy.
Although Kentucky’s defensive stars were outplayed in the first half, they saved their best for when it counted.
“We only won three games my first year,” said senior defensive captain Braxton Kelley. “It means a lot to me to know we rose from the bottom to the top.”
Bryant, who took his Alabama teams to four Liberty Bowls ó including the inaugural game 50 years ago and the final game of his career in 1982 ó was the only other Wildcats coach to lead the program to three straight bowl games. Unlike Brooks, Bryant only won two of them.
Kentucky saved virtually all its magic for the second half, in every aspect of the game, and it started when David Jones took the opening kickoff for a Liberty Bowl-record 99-yard TD.
“After I scored that touchdown, it was like everything swung our way and came into place,” Jones said. “It put a big spark in the whole team and got us going.”
Minutes later, quarterback Mike Hartline, starting for injured freshman Randall Cobb, gave Kentucky its lone offensive TD when he hit Kyrus Lanxter on a crossing pattern for a 19-yard touchdown.