Kentucky did. Make no mistake about that.
Yet as inspired as the defense played the second half — remember UK gave up only two field goals the second half — the Cats couldn’t make the stop they desperately needed any more than they could get the touchdown that could have won the game.
“That’s why this hurts,” Kentucky quarterback Mike Hartline, who played brilliantly and was 23-for-28 passing for 220 yards and one score with no interceptions and no sacks, said. “We could have won. We should have won. But we didn’t.”
Kentucky stormed back behind the again superb play of Randall Cobb, who scored three times to tie Craig Yeast’s all-time Kentucky scoring record of 32 touchdowns. Cobb had 11 rushes for 47 yards, caught seven passes for 68 yards, threw a touchdown pass to Jordan Aumiller and returned three kickoffs for 86 yards.
He accounted for 207 yards on 21 touches, well above his per game average of 13 touches through UK’s first five games.
“Not much needs to be said. This guy is the best football player I have ever been around,” Phillips said. “He just makes plays. Every time the ball is in his hands something exciting happens.
“He is hard to tackle. He makes people miss. He catches in tight places. He is not blessed with great speed and he is not real strong, but he just makes play. He has it.. I don’t know what it is, but we need more players with that.”
Ironically, trailing 34-31 the Cats drove from their 30 to the Auburn 27. On third down, Hartline threw 3 yards to Cobb to set up a fourth down and one at the 18 with 9 minutes, 29 seconds to play. Phillips could have gone for the tying field goal. Instead, he put Cobb in the wildcat and he split defenders to get the first down.
“That was a gutsy call by Joker, but it shows the confidence he has in us and we have in him,” Hartline said. “He’s an aggressive coach. We all wanted to go for the first down.”
But Auburn stopped Cobb for a 2-yard loss on the next play and then stopped Donald Russell, who played well after Derrick Locke couldn’t continue due to two sore shoulders, for no gain. On third down, Hartline overthrew a well-covered Cobb and UK had to settle for the tying field goal with 7:33 left.
If the Cats had scored to take the lead, Auburn was ready to crumble. Instead, the UK defense collapsed.
Auburn outsmarted itself on the kickoff return and tried a reverse that was fumbled and recovered by the Tigers at the 5-yard line. Auburn converted a third down and six and then survived a replay of another fumble that was ruled out of bounds before the Cats recovered.
“There was no doubt we would get them stopped. Our offense was moving the ball on them. No doubt we would win,” Phillips said — and most fans at Commonwealth Stadium probably would have agreed.
The offense was moving. The defense was playing with passion. The upset script was written. But Auburn changed the script.
The Tigers let quarterback Cam Newton, who ran for 198 yards and four scores and threw for 210 yards, take over. Auburn ran nine straight plays after getting to its own 41 and reached the UK 5-yard line before settling for the winning field goal.
Phillips said he never considered a Hal Mumme-like move where UK would have let Auburn score the go-ahead touchdown to get the ball back down seven points with time on the clock.
“Anything can happen. We are playing for the turnover. We are not going to let them score. They put the ball on the ground four times and we didn’t get any. We were playing to get the turnover,” Phillips said.
True, but UK was also playing to get a huge upset that it didn’t get. However, the Cats may well have salvaged their season. Maybe not in their minds, but they certainly won back the Big Blue faithful with their dramatic comeback.