Pirates can’t hang on in Liberty Bowl

Published 7:36 pm Saturday, January 3, 2009

By By JEFFREY McMURRAY, Associated Press Writer
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.