Date story was published: Sunday, November 16, 1986
Kentucky saved its best for last. At long last.
On cold and misty day, UK not only upset Florida 10-3 yesterday in this season's home finale, but it did so with the kind of last-minute heroics that the opposition had seemed to own exclusively. And in inexhaustible supply.
To make it all the sweeter, the signs were there for another heart-rending defeat, a dreadful duplication of the disappointment following Virginia Tech's miracle in Blacksburg two weeks ago or Florida's last-second field goal for a victory in 1985. Or . . .
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Suffice it to say the list of horrors stretches beyond Jerry Claiborne's five-year tenure.
The Wildcats had dominated Florida, confusing the resurgent Gators with an array of blitzes and an offense getting sharp performances from quarterback Bill Ransdell (20 of 23 passes, for a school-record completion percentage of 86.9; Randy Jenkins and Ransdell shared the previous record of 77.7) and Mark Higgs (27 carries, 95 yards). Only a 65-yard pass play, which set up the Gators' only points, prevented UK from enjoying a wider margin in total yards. As it was, Kentucky had a 308-241 cushion.
A more revealing stat was time of possession. Thanks in part to avoiding a single turnover, UK controlled the ball - and the game - for 41 minutes and two seconds. That left Florida just 18:58.
"The best defense you can have is to keep the other team's offense on the bench," UK coach Jerry Claiborne said. "To be honest, I was surprised with the way we controlled the ball."
However, because Joe Worley missed two field goals into a strong breeze and another drive was snuffed short on fourth-and-inches, UK had only a 7-3 halftime lead to protect.
The gamelong lead was still a precarious 10-3 with one minute remaining. It was then that Kentucky went eyeball to eyeball with a familiar foe.
For once, fate blinked.
Typical for the sorry script that seemed to be unfolding, the opponent's quarterback suddenly got hot. Florida's Kerwin Bell had completed just four of 21 passes when the Gators took possession at their own 17-yardline with 60 seconds remaining.
On first down, Bell threw a 17-yard sideline pass to wide receiver Eric Hodges.
On second, he fired a 15-yard strike to Hodges' replacement, Darrell Woulard.
Asked if was getting nervous, Chip Garber, UK's secondary coach, said: "Oh yeah, I thought, here we go again."
On the third play, Bell hit Ricky Nattiel, an all-Southeastern Conference receiver, over the middle at about the UK 21. Nattiel took one step. Then Tony Mayes, the UK defensive back beaten on the pass, reached from behind, swept an arm downward across Nattiel's hands and knocked the ball to the ground. A moment later, Mayes removed himself from tackling Nattiel and fell on the ball.
The only suspense remaining was watching about 20 seconds tick off the Commonwealth Stadium clock.
Florida, losing for the first time in five games, didn't bother to wait. After Mayes' recovery, the Gators began walking toward the locker room, painfully aware its 5-5 record probably meant no bowl bid.
Kentucky, now 5-4-1, could claim its second straight SEC victory and maybe its finest ever for Claiborne at Commonwealth. Ransdell and Higgs thought so. "It felt so good, I started crying," Higgs said.
It was also UK's first victory against Florida since 1979.
The wait for good fortune to smile on UK in a game's final moments seemed even longer.
"This has been a long time coming," linebacker coach Terry Strock said. "We'd been in that situation so many times. For a change, it went our way."
Mayes, who was a frequent target of Bell's, said he had tried his game- saving maneuver when Woulard and Bell collaborated on a 65-yard pass-and- run in the second quarter. The chopping technique, something Claiborne borrowed from the Los Angeles Raiders two years ago, had failed the first time.
"It doesn't work all that often," Mayes said. "You've got to be in the right place at the right time."
Kentucky seemed in that position all day.
Cornell Burbage's 35-yard punt return set up the game's only touchdown late in the first quarter. The Cats needed only 32 yards and a Claiborne fourth- down gamble to go ahead 7-0. On fourth-and-1 from the 4-yard-line, fullback Marc Logan took a pitchout around right end to the goal line.
"Probably the play to call is kick the field goal," Claiborne said. "But the players wanted to go for it so bad. When it works, it's a great call."
Higgs, who did much of the running in the absence of injured tailback Ivy Joe Hunter, scored on the next play on what was officially a 1-yard run.
"This was just like high school," Higgs said. "A lot of people were depending on me. I knew I couldn't let people down."
UK could have had more. A Florida fumble 29 seconds after Higgs' touchdown gave UK possession at the 31. The Cats had to settle for Worley's 51-yard field goal attempt after a third-down sack. The kick went wide left.
Later in the second quarter, UK overcame two holding penalties in reaching the Florida 26. This time Worley missed wide right from 42 yards.
The misses were two reasons why Kentucky pushed inside the Florida 30-yard line five times, but got only 10 points.
Meanwhile, Florida went nowhere. The Gators gained only 18 total yards in the first quarter and three first downs in the first half. Except for the 65- yard pass to Woulard, the Gators had just 46 yards of offense at intermission.
Strock, UK's de facto defensive coordinator, credited the blitz. The Cats altered their blitzes, sending a defensive end and linebacker rather than two of either for the first time this season. Kentucky also exploited a weakness to harass Bell whenever the Gators used a no-back alignment, Strock said.
"We felt we had to get after him," Strock said. "The last two weeks, he picked Auburn and Georgia apart. He's not as mobile as he was (knee injury), so we felt we had to prevent him from being able to sit back there."
Bell caught UK in a blitz when he hit Woulard on the 65-yard pass. Woulard seemed headed for the end zone before being caught from behind by both Mayes and safety Ron Robinson at the 5-yard line.
"I don't think Mayes or Robinson could catch him in a track uniform," Claiborne said. "But today they had to. So they did. It was that kind of day for us."
After a running play was stopped for no gain, Bell twice tried to pass for the equalizer. He led Hodges inches too far on a quick flip over the middle. On third down, his floater barely eluded tailback James Massey.
"Usually that's the point people think it's 7-7 at halftime," Ransdell said. "We thought they're not going to get it in."
The Gators settled for a 22-yard field goal.
"We thought we'd block it," Ransdell said.
In the closing seconds, Mayes provided a reason to believe.