LEXINGTON, Ky. (KT) — Kentucky honored its 16 seniors prior to its home finale and one of them — Mike Edwards — made sure the Wildcats took care of business against Middle Tennessee State on Saturday.
Edwards, a defensive back, set the tone early for No. 20 Kentucky with a 66-yard interception return for a touchdown and caused a fumble that led to another score in the Wildcats’ 34-23 victory over the Blue Raiders.
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops didn’t expect things to come easy against pass-happy Middle Tennessee.
“We knew it was going to be a tough, hard-fought game,” Stoops said. “They kind of beat us at our own game, kept the ball, possessed the ball the entire game and it really got a little aggravating.”
Stoops wasn’t surprised by the interception and score by Edwards that gave the Wildcats a boost early in the contest.
“He is absolutely consistent,” Stoops said. “(He’s) one of the better players in our league, been very reliable.”
Although the start was easy, the finish was a struggle. But, in the end, Kentucky sealed the deal with two crucial sacks, including one by Josh Allen that set the school record with 26.5 for his career. It was a moment Allen envisioned after making the decision to return for his senior campaign.
“I knew I was going to have something special this year and I knew we had a special team and I knew we were going to do some special things,” he said. “I worked extremely hard for moments like this.”
Kentucky (8-4) reached the eight-win plateau for the first time during the regular season since 1984 and can increase that total with a win at Louisville next weekend.
The win snapped the Wildcats’ two-game losing streak and supplied a dose of momentum going into the regular-season finale at Louisville. The final tally was the team’s highest point total since a 48-10 victory over Murray State on Sept. 15.
“When you’re doing things that haven’t been done in 34 years or whatever it is, it’s not meant to be easy. It’s not easy,” Stoops said. “I have a great, great appreciation for this team, but especially the senior group. The way they stepped it up again tonight and the way they played and what they have done for this program.”
Kentucky junior running back Benny Snell, who rushed for 116 yards on 26 carries, said the seniors “left on a pretty good note.”
“Every senior had a critical moment in the game, whether it’s the defensive backs making tackles, Mike with a pick, Josh (Paschal) with a sack, my offensive line, and those guys. Everybody came together. It was a good day. I’m glad we got the victory.”
Kentucky linebacker Josh Paschal made his first start of the season after he was diagnosed with malignant melanoma prior to the season. Pascal made one tackle and can play up to four games this season and still qualify for a medical redshirt.
“It meant a lot to me (to be back on the field) because of where I was a couple of months ago and how God has blessed me with the opportunities and the support staff and Big Blue Nation,” he said. “Everybody just lifted me up.”
Stoops planned to insert Paschal back into the lineup sooner but wasn’t comfortable with the timing until this past week. Paschal is undergoing treatment and is on track to finish in August.
“We gave him the start because we thought it was right and it was inspiring to the team, fun and we got off to a really good start with the two turnovers defensively,” Stoops said.
Allen enjoyed playing alongside Paschal for one last time at Kroger Field.
“It was unbelievable for him to be out there right now,” Allen said. “He’s worked extremely hard and every day, doing extra and more than anybody else out there.”
EIGHT IS GREAT
Kentucky has won or more eight games in a regular season just four times in the past 57 years. The Wildcats accomplished the feat in 1976, 1977 and 1984.
During the past 25 regular-season games, Kentucky has compiled a 17-8 record, the best stretch since going 17-7-1 from 1976-1978.
“We just wanted to win for our seniors and go out with a bang,” Kentucky quarterback Terry Wilson said. “It was their last home game, so they did well.”
Senior tight end C.J. Conrad was pleased with the ending result. Kentucky finished with a 6-1 mark at home this season.
“To leave a lasting impression is always good,” he said. “The seniors stepped up today and I’m proud of the whole group.”
Snell was non-committal as to whether the contest was his last at Kroger Field.
“It could be, it could not,” he said. “I enjoyed the game. I don’t know what the future is (and) it’s a conversation that I have a lot. I like living in the moment. I like living where I am right now and preparing for the next team. I’m just focused on game by game right now.”
Stoops said he will let Snell make that decision whether to enter the NFL Draft or return for his senior campaign “when it’s the appropriate time.” Stoops added he doesn’t think it will be a “long conversation” when it comes time to meet with Snell to decide his future plans.
“He stands to lose by coming back, where other guys, they all gained by coming back,” Stoops said. “That (the running back) position is really different.”
Gametracker: Kentucky at Louisville, 7 p.m., Saturday. TV/Radio: ESPN2, UK Radio Network
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @keithtaylor21.