Kentucky played in the Vrbo Citrus Bowl in Orlando on Saturday, not far from the most magical place on Earth (Disney World) nor from the place where Harry Potter reigns supreme (Universal Studios).
The Cats needed to channel some of that local magic, facing No. 15 Iowa. UK found out that a number of key players would be missing the game due to a variety of injuries, illnesses and contact tracing. UK was without Josh Paschal, J.J. Weaver, Josh Ali, Isaiah Epps, Kavosiey Smoke, Dare Rosenthal and Marquez Bembry, among others.
As the game went on, Kentucky endured even more injuries against a physical Iowa team. And, especially in the second half, the UK defense was shorthanded and worn out from being on the field so long as Iowa rallied to take the lead. Both teams were also battling field conditions where the temperature was over 100 degrees.
Many teams facing all of those obstacles might have thrown in the towel. But that's not in the DNA of a Mark Stoops-coached team. Like their head coach, these Wildcats are tough and will never give up. At halftime, Stoops told the team to prepare for this game to go down to the wire.
"The last thing I said when walking out at the half was, this thing is going 60 minutes," Stoops said. "They're not going anywhere, but neither are we."
Turns out, the UK head coach was exactly right. After falling behind 17-13 in the fourth quarter, Kentucky got the ball back with 3:31 to play. That's when quarterback Will Levis and wide receiver Wan'Dale Robinson went to work. The two connected on four pass plays, including a 52-yard strike that set up the winning score, as Kentucky rallied to win 20-17.
But it would not have been this game had Robinson not gotten the wind knocked out of him on the 52-yard reception. He, like many of his Wildcat brethren, had to go to the sidelines for a play. Stoops marveled at the toughness his wideout displayed all season, and especially on Saturday.
"He's a competitor, so tough," Stoops said of the Frankfort native. "I have a lot of love and respect for him."
That reception also gave Robinson the UK record for receiving yards in a season, with 1,334.
The player who sealed the game with an interception, linebacker DeAndre Square, went to the postgame press conference on crutches. Despite being injured, Square still made the play when the Cats needed it.
The win was Kentucky's second Citrus Bowl triumph in the last four years. Kentucky beat Penn State 27-24 in the 2019 edition of the event.
With the victory, Kentucky won 10 games in a season for the second time in four years and just the fourth time in school history. And these gutsy Cats did so despite missing several key players.