LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Kentucky delivered one of its best performances of the season Saturday in a bittersweet send-off for departing head coach Joker Phillips and the Wildcat seniors in their final game at Commonwealth Stadium.
The Wildcats rushed for a season-high 342 yards and the UK defense held Samford to only 102 total yards on their way to a 34-3 win in the first game since UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart announced that Phillips would not be retained for 2013. The third-year coach got an emotional ride on the shoulders of senior offensive linemen Larry Warford and Matt Smith on their way off the field.
"We were going to force him on our shoulders," Warford said. "That's what he means to us. He is so important in our hearts. He loves this program so much, and he breathes it. He's a champion."
"I'm glad I was able to experience that with the seniors," Phillips said. "... All of it touches you because it's such an emotional time. This is a game of emotion, and you get to see some of those emotions come out when a kid is getting ready to play his last game, or many of them will -- it's definitely a last game here. Many of them only have one game left that they'll ever put a uniform on."
Kentucky (2-9) snapped an eight-game losing streak that culminated with its coach being dismissed after a 40-0 loss to Vanderbilt on Nov. 3.
The Wildcats scored on their first two possessions of the game, seizing a 14-0 lead on an 11-yard touchdown pass from freshman quarterback Jalen Whitlow to senior receiver Gene McCaskill and a 20-yard keeper by Whitlow.
Samford's only successful drive of the night produced a 41-yard field goal early in the second quarter, but Kentucky responded with a 35-yard field goal by Craig McIntosh, a 14-yard touchdown run by Raymond Sanders and a 25-yard fumble return by defensive tackle Tristian Johnson (UK's first defensive score of the season) to take a commanding 31-3 lead into the half.
McIntosh added a 43-yard field goal in the third quarter before UK showed mercy on its FCS opponent from the Southern Conference. The Wildcats had the ball at the Samford 5, 20 and 1 yard lines on their final three possessions, but elected to run the ball on fourth-down situations instead of kicking field goals and took a knee at the goal line as time expired to earn the respect of Samford coach Pat Sullivan.
"Let me say something about Joker Phillips," he said. "This was his last game, and the seniors and those guys came out and laid it on the line and played probably one of their better ball games... What a class thing that he did by kneeling on the ball instead of running up one more score. He could have done that. You know, there are not many people in college football that are doing those things. I told hm at the end of the game that it was really a class thing, and I wish him well."
Samford (7-4) was 2-for-12 on third-down conversions and finished with minus-2 net rushing yards. The Kentucky defense had a season-high five sacks among eight tackles for loss.
Two UK backs set new career highs for rushing yards -- Sanders with 123 and Dyshawn Mobley with 82. The Cats also got 76 yards from Jonathan George and 59 from Whitlow.
Kentucky closes the season next Saturday at Tennessee in a 12:21 p.m. ET kickoff on the SEC Network. The Cats snapped a 26-game losing streak the Volunteers last season at Commonwealth Stadium and will be seeking their first two-game streak over UT since 1976-77.
* The game marked the first meeting between Kentucky and Samford in football.
* Kentucky won its third consecutive Senior Day game, the first time that has occurred since winning nine in a row from 1952-60.
* UK junior linebacker Avery Williamson recorded 13 tackles and two sacks. He is the first Wildcat to record 13 or more tackles in four consecutive games since linebacker Randy Holleran in 1990.
* Samford's 102 total yards was the lowest figure allowed by a UK defense since holding Vanderbilt to 91 on Nov. 16, 1996. The Bulldogs' minus-2 net rushing yards also marked the first time the Cats have held an opponent to negative rushing yards since that 1996 game against Vanderbilt.
* Sanders became the 33rd player in UK history to reach 1,000 career rushing yards. The junior from Stone Mountain, Ga., now has 1,024.
This KentuckyScout photo gallery features several images from the Wildcats' 34-3 win over Samford on…