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September 29, 2011It was one of the biggest nights in the history of Kentucky football. The No. 17 ranked Wildcats hosted the No. 1 LSU Tigers. Kentucky was coming off its first loss of the season, a 38-23 defeat to South Carolina, and the Tigers were on track for a national championship. Four years later, several Kentucky players and coaches spoke to Cats Illustrated about the game.
LSU was led by its defense that year, including Heisman candidate Glenn Dorsey on the defensive line. Kentucky had more than a few stars of its own, including a high-powered offense led by Andre Woodson, Keenan Burton and Jacob Tamme.
The Wildcats entered the game with revenge on their mind. In 2006, they'd been dealt a 49-0 loss in Baton Rouge. That game was never far from their thoughts as they looked to make a statement on the national stage. Practice that week was especially intense.
Senior linebacker Wesley Woodyard: I remember really a lot of focus. The year before they got us pretty good in Baton Rouge and we felt like we had to get some payback. And we remembered the game here (in Lexington in 2002) when they scored on the last second pass, so there was a lot of history for us trying to get the win.
Quarterbacks coach Randy Sanders: I remember one of our big insistences was avoiding negative plays. If we gained two yards and then gained two yards again, we had third-and-six, and that's way easier to convert than third-and-ten. That was a huge priority for us. We knew their style of play, their defense was prone to big plays. Fortunately, we were able to make some of those plays.
Senior quarterback Andre Woodson: Especially that week because we had just lost to South Carolina, we were really embarrassed by the way we performed the week before. We felt we should have had a win. Because we didn't, everyone was focused and was ready to play. Everyone had predicted us to lose and we were upset with the way everything was going. It really made us mentally focus that week.
Defensive coordinator Steve Brown: That particular group of guys were really hard workers. They wanted to be great. They wanted to prove something. We put Braxton Kelley at Will backer in place of Wesley Woodyard, so we had a great group of guys. In one way it was just like another game, just another SEC game.
Junior linebacker Braxton Kelley: It was like 'Hey, guys, we feel like we have a real chance of winning this game.' We believed in ourselves. It's all about believing in yourself. Realistically, we had the same team as the year before.
Woodyard: They were a monstrous team. It seemed like their entire offensive line was at least 6-3, 330. They had a left tackle, Herman Johnson who was 6-7, 360.
The night before the game, the Wildcats retreated into a team hotel, as is normal. But the atmosphere that evening was anything but normal, at least for some.
Kelley: I can remember how I was vividly the night before the game. I'm really focused. I don't like talking too much. I like to look over my playbook.
Woodyard: From what I remember, it was more of a quiet atmosphere. It was one of those atmospheres you can't describe, you had to be there. We're getting ready to deploy for a war on that field on Saturday. I always have trouble sleeping the night before a game. I'm usually visualizing what I do the night before. I was always that way. In the morning, I was so nervous I couldn't eat anything.
Brown: I've been in the Super Bowl. I have played in a lot of games. You always are anxious with regards to how your guys are going to play, how your team will play. You want them to have the victory for their memories, so I was more anxious about that. I wanted them to accomplish something big.
Wildcat cornerback Randall Burden was just a freshman at the time, redshirting and spending the season on the scout team. Winston Guy was a senior in high school, being recruited by UK. They remember the atmosphere in Commonwealth Stadium that day.
Burden: Walking from the dorm, I saw tailgating everywhere. More than I had ever seen. There were people everywhere. In the stands, it had gotten crazy.
Guy: I wasn't really a big fan of Kentucky at the time. I really didn't know too much about the team. But I knew they had a lot of good players, they had a lot of leaders. Andre Woodson, Keenan Burton, Wesley Woodyard, Stevie Johnson. When I went to the game, the atmosphere was crazy. I've never heard Commonwealth Stadium be that loud before. I made sure I sat at the top so I could see with everyone standing in front of me.
Woodyard: Home field advantage was the difference. I'll go ahead and go on record and say if it was at LSU in their stadium it would have probably been a different outcome. I remember they were on their feet for every play in the second half and overtime.
UK drew first blood when Woodson hit tight end T.C. Drake near the end of the first quarter to go up 7-0. But the Tigers roared back and scored the next 17 points to build a 10-point lead. LSU would get the ball to start the second half, and UK was driving near the end of the half to try and cut the lead down.
With 1:04 left in the half, Woodson dropped back to pass, but didn't find anyone open. The normally statuesque quarterback ran for a 12-yard touchdown to pull his team within a field goal going into the locker room.
Woodson: They were running some sort of cover-2 look where they had a spy on the running back and it kind of opened up. I was about to dump it off to the running back, but I saw that the Mike backer had leaped on him and when he did there was nobody else in the middle of the field. So I decided I needed to tuck it away and run with it.
Sanders: It was huge. The fact that he did pull it down and run ran them out of that coverage a little bit. It was coverage they played a lot in the first half. You tell your quarterback if the receiver isn't open and he's not open and he's not open, pull it down and run with it. They had nobody accounting for him.
Kelley: For us to go in at half that close with a team that had decimated us a year before, we knew we had to keep it close and it would come down to the fourth quarter. If we don't score there and they get the ball after the half and score again, it puts us behind the eight ball.
Woodyard: Seeing Andre do something out of his character, we knew in our gut, we weren't going to lose that game. We were going to win by any means necessary.
Head coach Rich Brooks was well-known for his fiery halftime speeches. But on this night, he was mostly reserved. Brooks focused on reminding his players of the magnitude of the night and making second-half adjustments.
Kelley: He had a positive attitude. He wanted us to show the nation we were for real. It's a prime time game. He wasn't yelling too much. He wants everything to be perfect, but he did some coaching at half. For the most part, he was just encouraging us.
Woodyard: It was more of a speech to visualize what we had at hand. I remember Coach Brown was like 'It's on you. It's your senior year. What do you want to leave behind?' I wanted to go out there and win for him.
LSU opened the second half with a touchdown and a field goal to rebuild the lead. But then their offense started to stall, and they wouldn't put any points on the board in the fourth quarter.
Kelley: It was a big blow to us, but they started lining up wrong and getting weird penalties. Mistakes started to haunt them and work in our favor. If you keep making mistakes, you're going to put the other team in position to make a comeback and that's what happened.
Sanders: We knew at that time our defense was playing really well. Obviously we felt like we needed to score touchdowns and not kick field goals. We felt like if we could score touchdowns and keep the pressure on their offense with the way our defense was playing, we would have a chance to win the game. That's kind of the way it turned out.
Woodyard: In my mind I felt we weren't going to lose. But we knew if they got on a roll, it was going to be tough to stop them. It was that feeling. A lot of penalties. LSU was a really well-oiled machine that year that rarely made mistakes. Fortunately, they made some mistakes that hurt them.
Woodson: That whole season, we were always coming back. We were just one of those teams that fought through it. We never lost faith.
The Wildcats bounced back at the end of the third when Woodson hit Jacob Tamme for an 8-yard touchdown.
Sanders: Jacob Tamme had a touchdown pass that, since he'd been around long enough, he was able to alter his route and Andre was able to find him. We took advantage when opportunities presented themselves.
Woodson: I can't remember what the route was, but for some reason, me and Tamme and Keenan were always on the same page. It was kind of like a corner post. I realized what he was thinking. Luckily, I was able to hit him. I think if I had waited about a second later, he would have gotten killed by the safety screaming across the field.
Lones Seiber, Kentucky's much-maligned kicker, made two field goals in the fourth quarter to send the game to overtime.
Woodyard: That was really big for him. He was a guy that the fans had come down on him but he stepped up and helped win that game.
Seiber's kicks sent the game to overtime, where it became a back-and-forth affair. The teams traded touchdowns in the first period, then field goals in the second. Woodson threw a touchdown pass to Stevie Johnson in the third overtime, but the Wildcats failed on the two-point conversion. Then it was LSU's turn.
Tiger fullback Jacob Hester carried three times to set up fourth-and-short. The defense prepared for a fourth down stand, while the UK offense was focused on bouncing back and preparing for a fourth overtime. Most offensive players and coaches didn't even watch the end of the game.
It was Braxton Kelley who made the final tackle. LSU tailback Charles Scott took the handoff, but was stopped just a yard short of the first down. It was over. Kentucky had beaten the No. 1 team in the nation.
Brown: I remember in the snap there was a timeout, prior to fourth-and-one. Coach Brooks had been in my ear all game and at the timeout I said 'Coach, coach, what do you think?' and he said 'Uh, whatever you think, Brownie.' So I called the defense, looked up and they were a yard short.
Woodyard: I remember him making the tackle and knowing they came up short. My vantage point, I could see it right away. I ran up and tackled him. I don't think I said too much to him, just 'Dawg, you did it!' It was really special for his career and a play he'll remember forever.
Kelley: At first I didn't know what down it was. We were in an under-special seven. They had two backs and two tight ends and ran a power-I. I saw the guard pull and ran right there and hit the running back in the backfield. I didn't know if I had tackled him and then Wesley jumped on me and told me we'd stopped them. I'll never forget that. When I ran into the backfield, I almost tripped. That's why I hit him as low as I did. I was just hoping he didn't fall over my back and get enough yards for the first down.
Woodyard: I tackled him with joy. I think I hit him harder than anyone else did in the game. It was really special for us because we went to the same high school, had the same hometown, had the same dream of making a big play in a game against a big program.
Woodson: One of the players grabbed me and started hugging me and that's when I knew we had won. I don't remember who it was. I tried to run on the field, but CBS had grabbed me and they were trying to get a quick interview. I was so overwhelmed by everything that was going on, I didn't have a chance to experience everything. It was a huge moment for the university.
Sanders: When he made the stop, I realized that the game was over. Up until that time, you're always thinking about what's next. Even when the play was going on, I'm still thinking about what we're going to do next. When he got tackled and I realized it was short, it was like 'I don't have to think about that anymore.' I went and sat back down. I wasn't shocked that we stopped them, but was shocked that the game was over.
For the second time that year, Kentucky's fans poured out of the stands and rushed the field. UK had beaten LSU 43-37.
Burden: I ran down there as soon as the game was over with. I don't even remember what happened. I can't tell you who I found or what happened. I was just so happy because I had never been a part of something like that.
Guy: I wasn't going to mess with (rushing the field). I didn't want to take that risk. I was up in the stands. I was lower level sitting with the recruits, but I was close to the field. I love that game. It was good for the program to know you can beat anyone if you put your heart and mind to it.
Kelley: I didn't realize it was one of the biggest wins in program history until after the game. For a while it was me trying to survive. Like 20 people jumped on me (when the crowd rushed the field). I had reporters after the game asking me who made the tackle and I was like 'I made the tackle.' Reporters started asking if I knew what I did, if I knew how big it was.
Sanders: That's one of the unfortunate things about this profession and this game. You got to enjoy the heck out of it that evening, but you had to go back to work the next day and get ready for someone else. After the season you enjoyed it and years later you can look back on it, but at the time you have to put it behind you and go to the next game.
Woodyard: I remember the fans jumping over the wall, beaming with happiness. I remember giving my mom a big hug and talking to my brother and going into the locker room. There was so much happiness in there. People were excited, shedding tears. Coach Brown was there, he had come down from the press box and his arms were wide open to me. He was like a dad to me. We just lived in the moment.
Brown: It almost brings tears to your eyes. It almost brought tears to your eyes to see their elation. To do something a lot of people never thought they could. When I walked out of the locker room to see my wife and see the smile on her face, that's what it's all about.
For some, the glory was fleeting. After a night of celebration, it was time to prepare for the next week. But it's a memory that still lives on in the minds of those who played, and everyone who was there.
Kelley: It's the first thing (everyone wants to talk about). Ever since that day. I still get messages on Facebook about it all the time, at least once or twice a week. Me not being from Kentucky, I didn't realize the magnitude of it at the time but now I do.
Woodson:We wanted to make a statement. Not just for that season but for the previous season, how bad we had gotten beat. We wanted to make sure everyone knew we weren't the same team as in the previous season. We proved we weren't the same doormat team in the conference.
Woodyard:That's one of the top games in Kentucky history. The fans always remember. The only thing I ever think about is Braxton making that tackle on fourth down. Some people thought I made the tackle. That was for about six months after. I kept having to correct them. As bad as I wanted to take credit for it, I couldn't. It's a moment we can live in and share with our children.
Brown:It's most important for these kids. Those kids that are gone now, they'll have that for the rest of their lives. No one can take that away from them. As a coach we had to go onto the next game.
As a coach you're excited about the victory, but you're really excited about victory, but really you're excited about your players and for those memories. As it happened, they went on to be national champions that year. We were kind of like co-national champions.