MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) -- Bear Bryant's brief and successful tenure as Kentucky football coach hasn't been matched since his departure 55 years ago.
The Wildcats have occasionally reached a bowl or two in the decades that followed, but never three straight. That was territory only Bear's boys reached.
Wildcats coach Rich Brooks has already matched Bryant by leading Kentucky (6-6) to three straight postseason games. With a victory against East Carolina (9-4) in the Liberty Bowl on Friday, Kentucky will have three consecutive bowl victories for the first time.
Fittingly, the Wildcats will take a stab at program history in the Liberty Bowl, where Bryant coached Alabama four times -- including the bowl's inaugural game 50 years ago and the final game of his great career in 1982.
"There are not a lot of bowl games that have been around 50 years," Brooks said. "It has great history. It has great teams that have played, great coaches that have been in it, great players that have been in it."
For the last two years, a Southeastern Conference also-ran has defeated the Conference USA champion in Memphis, but Brooks is the first to acknowledge his Wildcats are the underdogs in this one. East Carolina, appearing in its third consecutive bowl and its fifth since 2000, is hardly intimidated by major conference foes, having knocked off Virginia Tech and West Virginia and lost narrowly to North Carolina State.
"We just want to prove we're the same team at the end of the year that started the season," Pirates coach Skip Holtz said.
Kentucky just wants to prove it's not the same team that finished the SEC season in a three-game tailspin, including a blowout loss to Tennessee in the season finale.
This isn't the high-octane Kentucky passing offense that won the last two Music City Bowls behind the Wildcats' record-setting former quarterback, Andre Woodson. This team looks nothing like the 2007 Wildcats but a lot like, well, the 2008 Pirates.
Both programs thrive on defense, relying on turnovers to get the ball in prime field position and star-studded defensive lines to pressure the opposing quarterback.
Junior C.J. Wilson, East Carolina's all-Conference USA defensive end, ranks 12th in the country among active players in sacks per game and has racked up nearly half of his 211/2 career sacks this season. On the other side, senior Zack Slate has played a key complimentary role, getting to the quarterback five times this season.
That pressure has led to hasty passes, and the Pirates have capitalized on those with 21 interceptions -- including five against Tulsa in the Conference USA championship game.
Wilson and Slate say their motto has been to outplay the other team's defense, and considering Kentucky's athletes there, that's no easy task.
"We've got to match their level of intensity and add some more to it," Slate said. "It'll be, 'Grit your teeth. Let's go bump some heads."'
If the matchup is defense against defense, Kentucky defensive end Jeremy Jarmon -- a Memphis native -- doesn't seem inclined to want to lose that battle. Jarmon lobbied hard to play in the Liberty Bowl and hurried back from arthroscopic knee surgery to make sure he could suit up.
"I knew that I would play in this game," he said. "My surgery wasn't very serious. It has been just a matter of being patient, waiting for my body to heal itself."
Jarmon isn't the only Wildcat banged up. Many standouts remain sidelined by injury, including running back Derrick Locke and top receiver Dicky Lyons Jr. (who made the trip and won the Beale Street Elvis impersonation contest despite being unable to play).
Another late-season injury to freshman speedster quarterback Randall Cobb means Mike Hartline has regained the starting job he lost eight games in.
Like Hartline, East Carolina quarterback Patrick Pinkney bounced back from a midseason benching but has impressed since, throwing for 2,379 yards and 11 TDs and running for another.
"It's human nature to feel kind of down," Pinkney said. "But you can't be selfish if you weren't getting the job done. I knew if I got my chance, my teammates were counting on me."
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