Mark Story: Why I relish UK-Vandy football (and you should, too)

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistNovember 14, 2013 

  • Kentucky at LSU

    When: 7:30 p.m., Saturday

    TV: SEC Network

    Records: LSU 5-2 (1-2 SEC); Kentucky 5-1 (2-1)

    Line: LSU by 9½

With basketball firing up and Mark Stoops' first Kentucky team mired in 2-7 drudgery, many Wildcats backers seem to have tuned out from the Cats trip Saturday to play football at Vanderbilt.

That is such a mistake.

It might rise from the same impulse that causes one's neck to crane when you drive up on an overturned SUV, but I have always found the soupy, gummy, just plain odd Cats-Commodores football series perversely compelling.

Just a year ago, Kentucky-Vandy gave us the answer to the question, "What happens if you throw a major-college football game and no one shows up?"

When the UK players ran out into Commonwealth Stadium last season before the noon kickoff with Vanderbilt, there were so few patrons in the stands "we were kind of joking that the fans thought the game was at 7 o'clock," UK middle linebacker Avery Williamson said that day.

After Vandy's 40-0 pasting of the Cats, poor Joker Phillips discovered the answer to the question, "What happens when you throw a major-college football game and no one shows up?" The home team's head coach gets the ax.

Kentucky-Vandy has long produced coaching anomalies.

From 1991-95, UK head man Bill Curry managed to lose five years in a row to Vanderbilt — yet, somehow, Curry did not lose his job at any point during that streak.

Ex-Vandy head coach Gerry DiNardo produced an even more confounding coaching puzzle. At Vanderbilt, DiNardo went 4-0 against Kentucky; yet after he parlayed his Vandy tenure into the LSU head coaching job, DiNardo went 2-3 against UK.

In 2003, Kentucky-Vandy gave us the answer to the question, "What would it take to get a fan base to tear down the goal posts after beating UK?"

When Rich Brooks took the Wildcats to Nashville for the first time, Vanderbilt was in the midst of a 23-game Southeastern Conference losing skid. At kickoff, there could not have been 200 people sitting in the Vanderbilt Stadium student section.

Yet as the Commodores football team pushed the Wildcats all around the field, word spread around the Vandy campus that the school's long SEC losing streak was soon to be dead. By the final minutes of what became a 28-17 Vanderbilt victory, VU students were pouring into the stadium.

At the final horn, they rushed the field and tore the goal posts down. I can still see the students from "the Harvard of the South" trying over and over to figure out how to angle the torn-down goal posts to get them out the stadium tunnel.

True connoisseurs of Kentucky-Vandy football regard 1999 as the game that most fully captures the essence of the series.

That year, both teams came into the game 5-4, needing one victory for bowl eligibility. Since each team's final contest was to be a no-hope affair against defending national champion Tennessee, it was winner-take-all on a chilly night in Nashville.

Never have two programs trying to overcome histories of football futility worked so hard to give an important game away.

With 3:10 left in the game, UK led 19-17 and faced a third-and-inches from its own 39. On a called quarterback sneak, Dusty Bonner fumbled the snap. Of course, Vandy recovered.

Yet not a minute later, Vanderbilt had 3rd-and-short at the UK 31. Standout tailback Jimmy Williams took a handoff and easily ran for the first down — only to see a Kentucky walk-on, safety Patrick Wiggins, knock the ball loose.

UK fell on it and, eventually, accepted a bid to the Music City Bowl.

This year, a Commodores victory would tie the all-time series with the Cats 41-41-4. Under the energetic coaching of James Franklin, Vanderbilt (5-4, 2-4 SEC) is playing for bowl eligibility for a third-straight year. UK (2-7, 0-5) is looking to end a 13-game losing streak in conference games. Kentucky beat Vandy four times in five years over the course of UK's five-year bowl streak (2006-10). However, Vanderbilt has turned the tables dramatically since Franklin was hired, outscoring the Cats a combined 78-8 in victories the past two seasons.

Still, there's not as much statistical difference between these teams this season — Vandy 10th in the SEC in total offense, UK 12th; Vanderbilt 8th total defense, Kentucky 12th — as their records suggest.

So for the hearty who are holding out hope that Stoops' first season can still yield an unforeseen Cats victory (or two), there is this:

In Kentucky-Vandy, something unexpected is all but fated to happen.


SATURDAY

Kentucky at Vanderbilt

When: 12:21 p.m.

TV: WKYT-27

Records: Kentucky 2-7 (0-5 SEC); Vanderbilt 5-4 (2-4)

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230.Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.

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