Date story was published: Sunday, September 8, 1996
CINCINNATI - Surely it would be better, right? Surely this Kentucky football season/program (take your pick) could not sink much lower than it did in its dud debut a week ago, right? Surely, on this second Saturday of '96 the Cats had no place to go but up? Sure thing, right?
"I never," said Bill Curry yesterday, "expected us to play this badly."
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Not once, but twice. On the heels of an opening-night whipping at the hands of cross-state rival Louisville, the Cats crossed the river yesterday and promptly hit rock bottom once again, taking a second consecutive drubbing - from a Conference-USA foe, no less - losing 24-3 to Cincinnati before a record crowd of 30,729 (most Blue, one way or the other) at Nippert Stadium.
On this day, the woeful Wildcat offense managed a paltry 173 total yards, amazingly had a punt blocked and returned for a touchdown for the second consecutive week, and skidded to 0-2 for the second consecutive year, and for just the fourth time since 1967.
Moreover, toss last week's 24-point loss to Louisville (38-14) into the growing fire, and the back-to-back defeats by a margin of 45 points constitutes the worst start in the history of Kentucky football.
"I'm embarrassed," said senior defensive end Kurt Supe.
"I don't understand it," said quarterback Billy Jack Haskins. "I thought we had a chance to start off real good."
"We just came out flat," said senior strong safety Leman Boyd. "We just thought it would happen, and it didn't."
Indeed, two weeks into Curry's seventh season, it ain't happening. And yesterday's so-called "Miller Battle of the Cats" was actually billed as Second Chance Saturday, a Redemption Bowl of sorts, featuring two teams supposedly fuming from deeply disappointing performances.
Cincinnati, after all, had opened with a thud, losing 34-14 to lowly Tulane at Nippert. But, unlike UK, the Bearcats appeared to turn that poor first performance into a second-week positive.
"We had a lot more to motivate us, like what happened last week," said UC Coach Rick Minter. "Today was a sign of our character. It was a sign of good things to come."
What sort of sign (alarm?) was it for Kentucky? "Obviously," said Curry, now 22-47 as the UK coach, "we have not made the progress that we thought we had."
It took just seven minutes yesterday for that again to become all too clear. After Cincinnati downed a punt at the UK 4, the punchless Cat offense failed to move the ball out of danger, and UC took a short Cat punt at the Kentucky 30-yard line. First play, quarterback Chad Plummer hit wideout James Scott for 18 yards. Three plays later, Plummer suckered the Cat defensive line into an all-out rush and dumped a screen pass to a wide open Daryl Royal. Even the ex-Texas coach of the same name could have tiptoed untouched for the final 10 yards, as UC's Royal did, for the game's first score.
"We were in a blitz and our senior defensive end did not blitz check and take the flair," said defensive coordinator Rick Smith. "If we do that, it would've been a sack."
One minute later, the UK start went from bad to worse. Again the Cats failed to earn a first down. Again, Jimmy Carter punted. And again, after having two punts blocked last week, it was blocked. And again, for the second straight week, the opponents scooped up the loose ball and scored. Anthony Ladd did the honors this time, skipping five yards for a 14-0 UC lead.
"That can't happen," said Curry. "And yes, it is demoralizing."
No more demoralizing than what happened at the end of the first half. Just 40 seconds before intermission, Plummer found wideout Robert Tate wide open down the left sideline and a 37-yard touchdown for a 21-0 lead.
"We had just gone over that play two series before, drawn it up on the board for our defense," said Smith. "We knew they would go back to it when they had to. And we still missed the coverage."
The misses just kept on coming. On their first possession of the second half, down 21-3, the visitors drove from their own 19 to the Cincinnati 15-yard line, eating up 8:36 off the clock. But on third-and-nine from the 15, Haskins couldn't hit a well-covered Kevin Coleman in the end zone. Curry elected to take the three, sending in Brian Johnson for the 32-yard field goal. Alas, the kick sailed wide.
"I didn't think we were mentally ready to play, which disappoints us," Smith said. "I could see the effort, but I couldn't see the extra pop. We had no excitement, no explosion."
And a beaten football team. Even in the less-than-stellar annals of Kentucky football, this is a historic start. In 1954, Bear Bryant's successor, Blanton Collier, debuted with a thud, losing 20-0 to Maryland and 28-9 to Ole Miss. Even though the Cats rebounded for a 7-3 record, that start stood as Kentucky's worst. Until yesterday.
Said Supe, "The only thing I can say to the Kentucky fan is keep supporting us, and we'll get this straightened out."