5:00 PM ET, January 2, 2009
Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, Memphis, TN
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- 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.
• For the first time in school history, Kentucky has won three straight bowl games.
• The Wildcats outscored the Pirates 22-3 in the second half.
• With the win, Kentucky finished the season at 7-6. The Wildcats have now strung together four straight non-losing seasons for the first time since 1953-56
-- ESPN research
"I saw the quarterback coming and I knew I had to outrun him," the Wildcats' defensive end said. "I did two moves in one -- 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 -- 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 -- 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 -- albeit not nearly as long -- 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 -- including the inaugural game 50 years ago and the final game of his career in 1982 -- 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 that tied the game 16-all midway through the third quarter.
Hartline completed 19 of 31 passes for 204 yards and one interception. Brooks said he had been sick with the flu and praised his performance.
Pinkney finished 18-of-36 for 297 yards for East Carolina, most of it going to Davon Drew and Darryl Freeney. Drew caught five passes for 120 yards, and Freeney had five catches for 112 yards and a touchdown.
"I felt like we came out and competed, but we were unable to get the job done," Drew said.
Trevard Lindley, elected the Wildcats' team MVP, hyperextended his elbow while deflecting a pass in the end zone. The cornerback, who is considering leaving college a year early for the NFL, said afterward that he hadn't yet made a decision but doubted the injury would affect it.
While acknowledging his team's postseason accomplishment, Brooks, who has helped turn around the longtime Southeastern Conference bottom-feeder, said he has loftier goals for the future.
"We still aren't where we want to be," Brooks said. "Seven-and-six is not what we want to accomplish, but the last 30 minutes was about as beautiful of football that I have ever seen."
It was over when... Kentucky's Ventrell Jenkins scooped up a fumble and rumbled 56 yards for the go-ahead TD.
Gameball goes to... Patrick Pinkney. The ECU QB threw for almost 300 yards, and one touchdown, in the loss.
Stat of the game... 3. Kentucky won a third straight bowl game for the first time in school history.
Team Stat Comparison
|3rd Down Conversions||7-17||3-15|
|4th Down Conversions||1-1||0-1|
|FG||05:24||Ben Hartman 22 Yd||0||3|
|TD||14:14||Brandon Simmons 28 Yd Run (Ben Hartman Kick)||0||10|
|FG||08:59||Lones Seiber 21 Yd||3||10|
|TD||08:47||Darryl Freeney 80 Yd Pass From Patrick Pinkney (Pat Blocked)||3||16|
|TD||14:48||David Jones 99 Yd Kickoff Return (Pat Blocked)||9||16|
|TD||08:13||Kyrus Lanxter 19 Yd Pass From Mike Hartline (Lones Seiber Kick)||16||16|
|FG||00:06||Ben Hartman 43 Yd||16||19|
|FG||14:07||Lones Seiber 34 Yd||19||19|
|TD||03:02||Ventrell Jenkins 56 Yd Fumble Return (Pat Blocked)||25||19|