Date story was published: Sunday, September 09, 2001
It wasn't over a top-notch opponent, nor was it particularly convincing.
But when you've gone nearly one calendar year without winning a football game, all of that doesn't really matter. What mattered for the Kentucky football team was this: in 10 games, they walked off the field as winners with a 28-20 win over Ball State yesterday in Commonwealth Stadium.
Never mind that the Cats were outgained 427-361 by the Cardinals or that the outcome was still in doubt late into the fourth quarter.
Guy Morriss has his first win as a head coach, and UK can no longer be found on the list of the nation's longest losing streaks.
"It's kind of gotten a monkey off of our back," Morriss said.
"I don't care who you play, or how you play," defensive back Derrick Tatum said. "A win is a win, and I'm just happy to finally have one."
In search of a spark after last week's 26-point loss to Louisville, Morriss shook up a few things yesterday.
The first thing he did was alter the Wildcats' attire, electing to ditch the customary blue home jerseys in favor of the road white uniforms.
But the most significant change came under center, as Morriss gave redshirt freshman Shane Boyd his first career start ahead of previous starter Jared Lorenzen.
Morriss said earlier in the week that the starting quarterback for yesterday's game wouldn't be revealed until he trotted out on the field, and to no one's surprise, the 6-foot-2, 230-pound Boyd came out and took the first snap.
Boyd looked tight early. He threw three straight incompletions to start the game, and after marching UK to the Ball State 10-yard line on his second series, he fumbled the snap from center Nolan DeVaughn and Ball State's Justin Riley recovered.
That play set up a 30-yard field goal by Thomas Pucke, and the Cardinals held a 3-0 lead at the end of the first period.
But Morriss said he never considered benching Boyd and giving the ball to Lorenzen, who passed for 3,687 yards and 19 touchdowns as a redshirt freshman last season.
"You've got to give (Boyd) a chance," Morriss said. "And I don't think a series or two is a true evaluation of what he can do."
And with the 61,523 fans at Commonwealth Stadium starting to get antsy, Boyd got hot on the next series and UK finally ended its offensive drought.
Boyd would hit on his next five passes, and his 6-yard sideline pass to tight end Derek Smith set up Artose Pinner's 1-yard plunge at the 7:23 mark of the second quarter, ending a span of five quarters without a touchdown for the UK offense.
"That was kind of a relief," Morriss said. "Everybody was waiting to explode, and then once it happened we started to relax and get in a little rhythm."
Ball State would answer right back. Running back Mike Merriweather's 34-yard run and a 28-yard completion from quarterback Talmadge Hill to David Westbrook set up Hill's 7-yard touchdown pass to Tim Streit that put the Cardinals up 10-7 with 4:38 left in the first half.
By then, though, Boyd was in his comfort zone, and it took the Wildcats less than a minute to respond. Boyd found Ernest Simms on the left sideline for a 38-yard gain to the Ball State 16, and two plays later Boyd threw a rope in the end zone to Derek Abney for a 16-yard score and a 14-10 lead that the Cats would take into intermission.
UK then was able to get its running game untracked in the third quarter. The Cats were limited to 58 yards rushing against Louisville last week, but running back Chad Scott surpassed that total on one play when he bolted 67 yards down the right sideline to put the Wildcats ahead 21-10 with 9:55 left in the third.
Scott finished with 119 yards on just 10 carries.
Pucke nailed a 46-yarder to bring Ball State to within eight, but Smith took a short pass from Boyd on the first play of the fourth quarter and bulled his way in for a 13-yard touchdown and a 28-13 cushion for the Cats.
Boyd finished 15-for-22 passing for 215 yards and two scores, and Morriss said he will remain the starter.
"I'm the man right now, and I've just got to keep playing and getting better," Boyd said.
But even with a 15-point lead, UK couldn't begin its victory celebration just yet. Hill took the Cardinals on a 12-play, 94-yard drive that culminated in a 3-yard touchdown pass to Billy Lynch, and suddenly Ball State was just a touchdown and a two-point conversion away from tying the game with 5:26 left.
And when UK was forced to punt on its next series, Ball State had first-and-10 at its own 24 with 2:21 remaining.
Was Morriss getting a little nervous?
"I would be lying if I said I wasn't," Morriss said.
Ball State had the ball nearly twice as long as UK (39:17 to 20:43), leaving the Wildcats' paper-thin defense on the field for nearly two-thirds of the game.
"If there was one big disappointment, it was our last couple of series on offense," Morriss said. "I think we've got to have a little bit more of a killer instinct and a sense of urgency about how we operate with the lead and try and take some time off the clock and help our defense and keep them over on the sideline."
But the UK defense, without several regulars because of injuries and suspension, stepped up and made the kind of stand that had been missing during the nine-game losing streak.
On third-and-10 from the Ball State 36, Dennis Johnson pressured Hill into an intentional-grounding call, and on fourth down Johnson dropped Hill and forced him to fumble at his own 23. The Cardinals fell on the ball, but UK took over on downs and ran out the clock.
It was a solid ending to an otherwise quiet game for Johnson, who finished with four tackles.
"I really hadn't had a good game, but I knew I had two plays in me," Johnson said. "I just tried to crank it up and beat my man. This year, the coaching staff believes in us. And when you look over at those sidelines and see the coaching staff is believing in you, it just makes you want to go out there and give it your all."