The last time: Game column from Kentucky's 1986 win over Florida

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistSeptember 27, 2013 

Kentucky's Bill Ransdell completed 20 of 23 pass attempts in UK's 10-3 victory over Florida on Nov. 15, 1986, at Commonwealth Stadium.

TOM WOODS II — Lexington Herald-Leader

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON NOV. 16, 1986.

Fourth down on the Florida 4. Kentucky, 1 yard away from a first down.

Decision time.

Gut-check time.

In a scoreless game, should UK take the safe route and grab the lead with a chip-shot field goal? Or should it try for a touchdown? Quarterback Bill Ransdell was summoned, alone, to the sideline.

Then something extraordinary happened.

Everybody on UK's offensive unit abandoned the line of scrimmage. Toward the sideline they ran, shaking their fists, jumping up and down. Around coach Jerry Claiborne, who'd beckoned them all, they huddled.

Now you might think Claiborne asked them if they thought they could make it.

You might be wrong.

"There was no askin'," said Ransdell. "We just told him, 'We gotta go! We gotta get it.' "

AND SO THEY did. When UK's offense charged back onto the field, twisting and shouting with animation even stronger than before, they resembled more a Springsteen concert than an offensive unit. Tramps like us, baby we were born to score. Seconds later, Marc Logan took a pitch and bulled 3 yards for a first down at the 1. On the next play, Mark Higgs scored.

It was the only touchdown of the day.

And UK won, 10-3.

"Maybe the play that should have been called was a field goal," said Claiborne, "but they wanted it so bad."

So bad, indeed.

On this wet, cold day in which Kentucky kept alive its chance at a winning record and perhaps even a bowl bid, UK produced more emotion and determined effort than it's shown in ages.

Asked if he could remember a greater display of grit in his five seasons at UK, Claiborne said: "Maybe the one down in Tennessee a couple of years ago (a 17-12 win in 1984) or the bowl game (a 20-19 win over Wisconsin in the Hall of Fame Bowl that same year).

"But this has to be a big one. I'm just as excited as I can be over how they played. The adrenalin was really flowing. To be honest with you, I was surprised with the way we controlled the football."

Not coincidentally, UK controlled its destiny for a change as well.

OVER THE PAST decade, is there another team that has suffered so consistently from twists of fate and last-second nightmares as Kentucky?

Only last year it was none other than Florida that destroyed UK's upset bid with a field goal in the last 20 seconds to win 15-13. And two weeks ago, Virginia Tech got a 49-yard field goal at 0:01 to beat UK 17-15 -- the sort of sledgehammer blow that causes tents to be folded.

Late in yesterday's game, there was every reason to believe the madness would strike again.

Instead, UK looked the jinx in the eye not once, but twice -- and twice the jinx blinked first.

Showdown No. 1 -- With five minutes to go and UK up 10-3, Florida is at the UK 30. But on third down, defensive back Tony Mayes makes a great play, batting the ball from Eric Hodges near the goal-line. And on fourth down, UK's suddenly vicious pass rush forces Kerwin Bell into a hasty pass that fails.

Showdown No. 2 -- With an even minute to play, Florida takes possession at its 17. "I thought we were going to come down, score, go for two and win the game," said Florida coach Galen Hall. "I'm sure our players were thinking the same thing." Two plays later, the Commonwealth Stadium crowd is fearing the same thing. The Gators have gained 32 yards in two plays. And now Bell hits Ricky Nattiel over the middle. But there's Mayes, rushing up from behind, hitting Nattiel in the back. There's the ball popping loose. And there's Mayes, covering it.

You make your own breaks, the saying goes, and UK proved it.

UNLIKE THE PAST -- when mistakes and inconsistency put UK in a position to lose heartbreakers -- yesterday's game had few rough edges.

Kentucky lost no fumbles.

Kentucky suffered no interceptions.

Heaven knows they were due.

"We sure were," said Claiborne, but he corrected himself. "No, we were overdue. Way overdue."

A certain word processor (in this computer age we are no longer simply typists) had written only yesterday that Kentucky desperately needed to win an SEC game it wasn't supposed to win.

Now it has.

Now, Kentucky goes to Knoxville with a chance not only to beat archrival Tennessee, but also with a chance, as Ransdell put it, "to salvage a season."

Now, Kentucky has recorded the kind of game that can turn around a season, if not a program.

"Yes," said Mayes, "a big turnaround. We needed it. Coach Claiborne needed it. If we'd lost this game, it could have been a bad season, and it could have meant a bad recruiting season."

When you consider how lost the Cats' cause seemed just two weeks ago when Virginia Tech dropped UK to 3-4-1; when you consider all the call-in shows filled with complaints about Claiborne; when you consider the legacy of flops UK has endured over the years . . . well, all that speaks to how significant it was that UK played hard and error-free yesterday.

And it explains why Claiborne, in assessing how well his offensive line blocked, uttered this faux pas in the post-game press conference.

"You gotta remember," Claiborne said, "Georgia is a tough, tough football team."

"Florida," corrected a media guy.

Claiborne looked puzzled.

"You played Florida today."

Claiborne grinned.

" 'Scuse me," he said, shaking his head. "You think I'm a little upset today?"

GOODNESS KNOWS HE can be forgiven. And maybe, just maybe, UK's gutty performance might prompt forgiveness on a larger scale by the growing critics of Claiborne's program.

Yesterday, UK abandoned conservatism and threw everything in the book at Florida. On its first play from scrimmage, UK had a 10-man line as Ransdell picked the ball off the ground and tossed it back to Marc Logan. From there, it used reverses, shovel passes, the shotgun, and a pitchout-pitchback to the quarterback, who then threw downfield.

On another occasion, Ransdell pitched to Higgs and, as the line blocked left, both took one step left and then froze. Suddenly, by design, both Higgs and Ransdell darted right.

Higgs gained 95 yards yesterday -- which is three more than he gained during a five-game stretch earlier this year.

And Ransdell, despite a heavy rush that sacked him four times, missed only three of 23 pass attempts and gained 161 yards through the air. In his final home game, brilliance.

In the fourth quarter, there were numerous times he scrambled for yardage, taking enormous hits that left him clutching his back with both hands as he hobbled back to the huddle. But one of those runs got UK in close for Worley's field goal. And others kept drives alive and the clock moving.

You can call those runs by Ransdell character-builders. For Ransdell, of course, it's nothing new.

"He's been doing it," said Claiborne, "for four years."

What distinguished UK yesterday was that the entire team showed such character - character that, in that crucial moment, had demanded a run on fourth-and-one.

"And with that type attitude," Claiborne said, "we felt they could make it."

With this success, maybe it's a feeling UK can embrace more comfortably in the future.

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