LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky quarterback Terry Wilson accounted for three touchdowns, Chris Rodriguez Jr. rushed for two scores including a 74-yarder before the Wildcats withstood Vanderbilt's late rally to win 38-35 Saturday and end a two-game losing streak.
Rested from a bye and with Wilson back from a one-game absence because of a wrist injury, the Wildcats (3-4, 3-4 Southeastern Conference) moved the ball at will against the Commodores (0-6, 0-6) on an emotional day following the death Thursday of offensive line coach John Schlarman from cancer. They registered five TDs and a field goal on the first seven possessions and appeared in control with a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter.
Wilson was critical to the start as he sandwiched a 32-yard score in the first half between TD passes to tight ends Justin Rigg (15 yards) and Keaton Upshaw (21). The senior completed 13 of 15 passes for 110 yards and rushed seven times for 83.
"Going into this game, we knew who we were playing for, which was coach Schlarman and Chris Oats (who's out with a medical condition)," Wilson said. "I feel the guys were motivated, so we just had to go out there and execute."
Rodriguez rushed 13 times for a career-high 149 yards with TDs of 3 and 74 yards, the last providing a 17-point lead midway through the fourth quarter. Chance Poore, playing in place of Matt Ruffolo, kicked a 28-yard field goal.
Kentucky ended up needing that cushion as Vanderbilt answered with Mitchell Pryor's 2-yard TD run before Ken Seals' 7-yard scoring pass to Cam Johnson with 30 seconds remaining to get within three. The Wildcats recovered the onside kick and ran out the clock.
"Certainly, I didn't want it to get that close and probably would've been crucified had they gotten that onside kick back," Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. "But I want to continue to push the program forward. I did feel like the game was in control. I would've liked for our backups on defense to play a little better late in that game."
The Commodores were only outgained 458-407 and weren't fazed when trailing by double digits. Seals threw for two TDs, while backup Mike Wright accounted for two short scores.
Despite the tense finish, Kentucky's victory provided the needed boost two days after Schlarman's passing. The Wildcats honored him multiple ways, including video displays and dedicating playing the state song, "My Old Kentucky Home," to him. Their best method was controlling the line of scrimmage throughout, rushing for 308 of their 458 yards and not allowing any sacks of Wilson, Beau Allen and Joey Gatewood.
They initially lined up with just 10 men and took a delay of game penalty (declined) just before left guard Landon Young came on the field wearing Schlarman's No. 65 worn while playing for Kentucky in the mid-1990s.
"We left a slot out there because we were missing one of our Wildcats today," Young said. "Just being able to have the opportunity to wear his number out there shows it was so much bigger than football. It was a blessing for me and it was a blessing that he allowed us to do that before he passed away."
Vanderbilt: The Commodores didn't commit a turnover and moved it well with five long TD drives against the Wildcats. They just had to play from behind from the start because the defense couldn't stop the Wildcats from scoring at will.
"For me, the defense in the first half to give up 21 points, it was a little unsettling for us," coach Derek Mason said. "And you look at how you got to battle back, and that's just part of it. We couldn't stop the run and too many explosive plays."
Kentucky: Terry Wilson and the offense showed how rest and healing can help as the Wildcats scored on all four first-half possessions. A defense that has slowed opponents struggled against the Commodores throughout. Poore, playing in place of Matt Ruffolo, ended up providing the difference. Ruffolo and All-America punter Max Duffy were unavailable, though Stoops wouldn't elaborate.
Vanderbilt hosts No. 6 Florida on Saturday, seeking to break a six-game series losing streak to the Gators.
Kentucky visits top-ranked Alabama on Saturday in the first of consecutive challenges against the top-10 SEC teams and leaders. No. 6 Florida looms the next week.