By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
Win streaks are funny things. No one really knows what brings about a long streak of winning. Some say it is talent, others say weak competition and some even say luck but the fact is that some teams are able to put together long winning streaks against all their opponents or sometimes just against one opponent.
Take Oklahoma football. It had a 47 game win streak against all competition in the 1950s. More recently Connecticut women’s basketball had a 111 game win streak from 2014 through 2017.
And then there are winning streaks against specific opponents. Most UK football fans are familiar with the winning streaks that teams like Florida and Tennessee had against UK, so there is no reason to head in that direction but it does help to illustrate the point. Some teams just have the ability to beat the other team no matter the venue, the coaches, the talent level or even the playing conditions.
Take Kentucky. It has winning streaks against Vanderbilt, three games in a row, and Missouri, four games in a row. They also currently have a five game winning streak against South Carolina. The streak against South Carolina dates back to a 45-38 win in 2014 in what is now considered a pivotal game in the turnaround that has occurred within the UK Football program.
On that early October night Commonwealth Stadium was packed with 62,000 fans. Steve Spurrier was coaching the South Carolina Gamecocks. Kentucky would fall behind and then make plays to catch up. But in the fourth quarter the Kentucky coaches saw something that Steve Spurrier was already aware of — his defense was weak and exhausted. They couldn’t handle the physicality of Mark Stoops-style football.
From that point on the Kentucky offense, behind Jojo Kemp at the Wildcat, steamrolled the Gamecocks to tie the game at 38. A Bud Dupree pick six with a couple of minutes to go put UK ahead for good and an Ashely Lowery interception with a minute and a half left in the game shut the door on the Gamecocks.
At that point the streak had begun. A seed had been planted. The Kentucky players had confidence. They believed in their coaches and they believed in each other. No one cared that quarterback Patrick Towles was now playing wide receiver because Jojo Kemp was now the de facto quarterback, running the Wildcat on every play.
Kentucky defensive tackle Mike Douglas, who tipped the ball into the air on the Bud Dupree “pick six,” didn’t care that the reporters wanted to talk to Dupree and not him about that final go-ahead touchdown. Douglas just cared about winning.
No one cared because the streak had started. Kentucky 1, Gamecocks 0. Mark Stoops 1, Steve Spurrier 0. That’s what it takes to start streaks and that’s how streaks continue on. A player makes a play, like Jojo Kemp did all night long, and then another player makes a play like Mike Douglas did when he tipped the ball and then Bud Dupree had his chance to make a play, and he did. A “pick six.”
But it took everyone sticking together, making plays and believing in their coaches and themselves to start that streak back in 2014.
The funny thing is that when those type players make those type plays all kinds of good things happen. In that 2014 game Steve Spurrier suffered his first loss ever to a University of Kentucky football team. And as luck would have it, Steve Spurrier was still the coach in 2015 when the Wildcats came to Columbia to play the Gamecocks. This time the result was the same. Denzil Ware ran back a fumbled two-point conversion attempt 98 yards to give Kentucky the victory.
Once again individual players made plays. Chris Westry had a game sealing interception with four minutes to play as South Carolina was threatening at the UK 26-yard line. Not only did the big plays by Ware and Westry and a host of others keep the win streak alive but it ended a 22 game road losing streak that Kentucky had carried for more than five years.
I’m sure by now the pattern is obvious. Winning players make winning plays at crunch time when the game is on the line. When that happens the streaks continue. That’s why Kentucky has beaten South Carolina five games in a row. That’s why they have beaten Missouri four games in a row and Vanderbilt three games in a row. Because at critical moments in the game individual players step up and make great individual plays to win the game.
If the Wildcats are to keep the streak alive this Saturday against Will Muschamp’s Gamecocks it will once again come down to which players on which team step up and make a winning play.
As much as I would like to see Jojo Kemp and Bud Dupree and Denzil Ware miraculously find some additional eligibility and walk out onto that field in Columbia Saturday night, I know it’s not going to happen. That means the players Kentucky has today — Sawyer Smith, AJ Rose, Kavosiey Smoke, Kash Daniel, Deandre Square and many others — need to step up and make a winning play.
And by so doing they need to create their own legacy and own a little piece of the streak for themselves and their team.
That’s how streaks stay alive.