Date story was published: Sunday, November 22, 1987
How many times had they seen it before? How many times? Placed on the winter-brown grass of Commonwealth Stadium, the football sat less than a yard from the opposing goal line, less than a yard separating the Kentucky Wildcats from the promised land. How many times had they seen it?
Maybe not literally. But certainly figuratively. If ever one play signified a season -- or a series, for that matter -- this was it: Tennessee leading Kentucky 24-20. Two minutes remaining. UK facing a fourth-and-goal inside the Volunteer 1.
"We get it in, we win," said quarterback Glenn Fohr. "We don't, we lose."
By now, you may know the story. If you're a Cat fan, bitter experience may have carved it into your heart. Mark Higgs got the call, a straight-up-the-middle, stop-us-if-you-can call. And Tennessee stopped him, middle guard Mike Whitehead and linebacker Keith DeLong meeting the UK tailback for no gain as the visiting Vols escaped into the cold, late November afternoon yesterday with a 24-22 victory.
"We've been short so many times," said UK coach Jerry Claiborne. "So many times."
And here they came up short again. Four downs later, Vol punter Bob Garmon stepped out of the back of the end zone for a safety as the clock ticked out and Tennessee was 8-2-1, thankful to accept a Peach Bowl invitation. And Kentucky finished 5-6, its third consecutive non-winning season.
"This kind of sums up our year," said offensive tackle Greg Kunkel, a senior. "It comes down to one play to have a winning season and we don't make it."
It was that kind of game, a Tennessee-Kentucky battle to be remembered. So much of it was like what had come before in this UK season, both good (a 137- yard effort by Higgs) and bad (another dropped TD pass). And so much of it was new, or almost new: a fine performance by Fohr (14 of 31 for 240 yards and two touchdowns), a career performance by birthday boy Dee Smith (seven catches, 170 yards, two TDS).
The two hooked up for two big plays that staked UK to a 10- point second-quarter lead. First Fohr hit Smith for a 68-yard touchdown, with the sophomore from Paducah -- 20 years of age as of yesterday -- taking the ball at the 40 before racing for the score. That made it 10-0.
The second was trickier, a Fohr floater -- "It was a play where I was supposed to throw it no matter what," said the quarterback -- that Smith came back on. "I had two guys on me," said the receiver. "I was just going to break it up."
Instead, he caught it. The momentum of the Vol defenders -- cornerback Victor Peppers and safety Tony Nelson -- caused them to overrun the ball, leaving Smith free to field it at the 10-yard line, then turn and waltz in for a 50-yard score. Kentucky led 17-7. There was 6:14 before half.
Which turned out to be just enough time for the Vols to strike big themselves. Quarterback Jeff Francis, back from an ankle injury for his first start in four weeks, hit Thomas Woods for 50 yards, then Terence Cleveland for a 9-yard TD and the Kentucky lead was 17-14 at intermission.
"But that didn't bother us," said UK linebacker Jeff Kremer. "We just knew we were going to stop them."
Yet UK stopped itself. The Cats took the second-half kickoff and drove 68 yards in 19 plays, eating up 8:25 of the clock. But, inside the UT 10, two straight incomplete passes -- the first a dropped ball by tight end Charlie Darrington in the end zone -- forced Kentucky to settle for Joe Worley's 24- yard field goal.
Tennessee's Phil Reich countered with a 38-yarder early in the fourth period. Then the Vols did some serious marching. Tailback Reggie Cobb, the freshman workhorse, carried much of the load, finishing with 144 yards. His 13-yard tote took it to the UK 12. Three plays later, on a third-and-eight, Francis called an audible at the line, Kremer and teammate Ron Robinson collided after the snap, and Cleveland popped open for a quick 10-yard score. "I felt terrible," said Kremer.
Yet, mostly, the Cats said they felt determined. There was 6:25 left. Tennessee's 24-20 lead was the Vols' first of the game. UK took over at its 20, fully aware this was it. "You could hear some of the offensive linemen saying, 'Never say never,' " said Higgs.
Cold throughout the second half (4 of 11), suddenly Fohr got hot. He hit fullback Darren Bilberry for 7 yards. Higgs broke loose for 17, to the Tennessee 44.
An illegal procedure penalty cost UK 5 yards. A failure to read a Tennessee blitz -- Vol linebacker Mike Kelley got the sack -- cost 12 more. Then the Cats got a break: a pass interference penalty to wash out a UT interception. Instead of Vol ball, it was first down Kentucky at the Cat 42.
With new life, Fohr found tight end Martin Pennington for 13 yards. An incompletion later, the quarterback hit Smith for 14. Another incompletion later, Higgs galloped for 13. Then Darrington worked open, catching a Fohr pass for 13 more and a first down at the Tennessee 5-yard line.
First-and-goal. Higgs took a pitchout and swung off right tackle for 3 yards to the two. "We had second-and-two and three downs to get it," Kremer would say later. "No way in the world I thought they were going to get stopped."
Second-and-goal. Higgs went again behind right guard Dermontti Dawson. But DeLong, a UT linebacker, tackled the tailback for no gain.
Third-and-goal. Kentucky called time out, its second. "We thought about going outside with Dee Smith," said Nord, but UK didn't, opting for a play called 42 solid with Higgs using his 43-inch vertical leap in an effort to get over the top. Higgs dived. But Tennessee rose, stopping him just short of the goal line.
Fourth-and-goal. Kentucky used its final timeout.
Said Greg Nord, UK's backfield coach: "We talked about going outside, doing a lot of things. But we had two fifth-year seniors (Dawson and tackle Greg Kunkel) on the right side of the line and the leading rusher in school history (Higgs, whose 1,278 yards on the season broke Sonny Collins' 1973 mark of 1,213)."
Said Higgs: "The coaches asked me what I wanted to run and I told them I thought I could jump over the top."
Said Claiborne: "We thought we could knock it in behind our best blockers with our best ballcarrier."
So that was the call: 42 solid. Again. Dance with the one who brought you.
One problem. Tennessee knew the tune.
"I was 90 percent sure they were going to call the same play again," said DeLong. "But there was also that 10 percent I thought they might go outside. But he's been their man all year."
"I figured they might try to go outside, but I saw the play all the way," said Whitehead. "I went under the center and came back up again and hit (Higgs) in the thighs. I hit him right as he jumped."
Higgs never got in the air.
Thus another disappointing season ended in disappointment. "The play doesn't matter," said Kunkel. "That close there's no excuse for not getting it in."
But others couldn't help but think of past nightmares, of flashing back to 1971 when, driving late in the game, a pitchout by UK quarterback Bernie Scruggs is picked off by a Vol and returned for a score, sealing a 21-7 Tennessee win. Or 1973 when Ron Steele's field goal on the last play of the game went just under the goalpost and UT held on 16-14.
How many times?
"We had three chances," said Higgs, his eyes swollen from tears, his voice shaking, "and we couldn't get 2 yards."
"The icing on the cake," said Kremer. "That one play; that's the way it was all season."