Date story was published: Sunday, September 22, 1985
Jerry Claiborne was several strides toward midfield as the final horn sounded an exclamation point on Kentucky's 16-11 come-from-behind victory over winless Tulane yesterday.
Only the most cynical would suggest the UK football coach was in a hurry to conclude this emotional seesaw of a game while the concluding was good.
What Claiborne really wanted, after the obligatory pat on the back for his coaching counterpart, Mack Brown, was to seek out the Tulane quarterback. All the gallant Ken Karcher did was forget a forgettable first half and throw for 173 yards and a go-ahead touchdown after intermission.
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"Where's Karcher? Where's Karcher?" Claiborne said as he scanned the Commonwealth Stadium turf.
As if by command, Karcher appeared, carrying a blank expression toward the Tulane locker room.
"Keep your head up," said Claiborne as he reached an arm around the quarterback's shoulder. "We went through this same thing three years ago."
Three years ago?
How about last week?
As Wildcat players and fans know too well, UK lost a lead in the final three minutes of its opener last week and fell 30-26 to Bowling Green.
Yesterday, it was Kentucky's turn to pull one out.
Mark Higgs, who miraculously (his trainer's term) salvaged a career in six months, did the honors. The little tailback with the repaired right knee scored the second of his two touchdowns with 2:17 remaining to allow Kentucky to even its record at 1-1.
Less than 90 seconds - 1:26 to be exact - before Higgs darted 20 yards for the winning score, Tulane had taken its first lead of the game (11-10) thanks to a touchdown and two-point conversion pass.
Did memories of last week's embarrassing opener flash through the Wildcats' minds?
You bet they did.
"A little bit," allowed Tony Mayes with a sheepish grin.
Instead of folding, however, the Wildcats flew 71 yards in just four plays, riding the arm of quarterback Bill Ransdell and the feet of Higgs.
The first play, a screen pass to fullback Chris Derry on the right flank, was stopped for only a yard gain.
After a 15-yard pass to tight end Mark Wheeler over the middle, Ransdell went back to Derry for a screen pass on the left side. Proving he can use a block as well as deliver one, the senior fullback carefully stepped 35 yards to the Tulane 20-yard-line.
On the next play, Higgs cut off back-up fullback Tom Wheary's block and zipped around right end for the winning touchdown.
"Once Wheary blocked the end inside, I went outside and knew I had a touchdown," Higgs said. "I knew because nobody was out there."
The suspicion in the Tulane locker room was that the Green Wave had only 10 men on the field. Strong safety Jonathan Hulbert, winded and cramping after chasing Derry, went to the sideline. In the confusion of playing a "nickel defense" for the first time this season, the Tulane players were unsure if Hulbert was replaced.
"I don't know what happened," Brown said. "We missed too many tackles, I know that."
Derry, too, was on the sidelines catching his breath when Higgs scored. Besides setting up the winning TD, Derry's big play also made amends for his costly fumble at the Tulane 2-yard-line late in the third quarter.
"That didn't even enter my mind until afterwards," said Derry. "Then I thought, 'Thank God I didn't fumble.'
"Mainly, I wanted to keep on running and look for blockers. All I saw were a bunch of blue shirts, a bunch of blockers."
Derry's third-quarter fumble, which came on a similar catch-and-run screen pass, took away almost certain points. He coughed up the ball at the 2 after running 31 yards.
Although costly, Derry's fumble was only one of several Wildcat miscues that kept Tulane in the game.
A 47-yard punt return on the fourth quarter's first play by Cornell Burbage. The return went for naught when he fumbled the ball away after being tackled by freshman punter Wayne Clements at the Tulane 39-yard-line.
A 45-yard field goal attempt by Joey Worley in the fourth quarter that hooked wide left. If good, the field goal would have put UK up 13-7 with 9:28 remaining.
A wide-open Burbage dropping a pass inside the Tulane 10 when it appeared he tried to run before catching the ball. After Ransdell was sacked on the next play, UK had to settle for Worley's unsuccessful field-goal attempt.
Two interceptions that tarnished Ransdell's second straight 300-yard passing day (302 yards). The first interception, a fluke ball that ricocheted high into the air off a lineman, probably cost the Cats points. It happened on a third-and-goal play from the Tulane 20-yard-line.
"The thing I'm proudest of is despite the number of mistakes and turnovers, they never quit," Claiborne said. "When I say we're making too many mistakes, I'm talking about mistakes that can beat you. After we missed the field goal, that was a good time for the defense to have a letdown."
To no one's surprise, Claiborne also mentioned Tulane's go-ahead drive that followed Worley's miss as gut-check time, too.
Twice in the 73-yard, 12-play drive, Tulane converted on third-down passes. Both went to split end Marc Zeno, who caught eight balls for 119 yards on the day.
Another big play was a 17-yard pass to flanker Jeff Wenhold that took Tulane to the UK 1. After a procedure penalty backed up the Wave to the 6, Karcher found back-up flanker Tony Wright in the rear of the end zone.
The catch cut UK's lead to 10-9 with 2:17 remaining and left Tulane with the decision to go for a tie with a conversion kick or the victory on a two- point conversion.
"There was no question in my mind," Brown said. "We didn't come up here to tie."
Tulane got the lead when Karcher hit halfback Mitch Doze on the two-point conversion pass. With UK in a man-to-man, Doze lost his man (Mayes) when the UK defensive back had to avoid another Tulane receiver crisscrossing the field.
"If he (the other receiver) hits me, it's an illegal pick," Mayes said. "Just say he got in my way. I knew all I could do was dive for the ball. After I hit the ground, I looked back and saw him (Doze) in the end zone. I thought, 'Oh Lord.' "
Tulane's go-ahead score and its 19-play, 54-yard march to a third-quarter field goal were in stark contrast to its anemic first-half offense. The Wave had only two first downs in the opening two quarters. The initial first down came on Tulane's opening possession. The second came on its last, with UK playing a "soft" coverage in the half's final 24 seconds. Zeno accounted for both, the second a 28-yard reception that set up Clements' 45-yard field attempt. He missed to the right.
Between first downs, Kentucky stopped Tulane cold. The Wave's offense consisted of three plays and punt on six straight possessions.
"In the first half, they thought they could blow us off the ball," UK defensive tackle Jon Dumbauld said. "The only thing they did was run it right up the middle. We were stuffing them. In the second half, they went to the short passing game."
Karcher acknowledged the strategy switch, saying he challenged his offensive line at halftime. "I said, 'Give me more time and I'll complete passes,' " Karcher said.
Given the time, Karcher then challenged UK.
The Cats responded.