Date story was published: Sunday, November 11, 1984
A little Mark Higgs went a long way yesterday. All the way to, say, the Peach Bowl or some other post-season game.
Seeking redemption after serving a one-game suspension for missing curfew, Higgs broke 84 yards for a game-breaking touchdown on the first play of the third quarter. That run, the second-longest in Kentucky history, pointed the Wildcats toward a 27-18 victory over Vanderbilt at Commonwealth Stadium.
. . . and a seven-victory season.
. . . and an all-but-certain bowl invitation.
No wonder, Greg Nord, UK's backfield coach, called Higgs' run "the sweetest first 10 seconds of any half I've ever seen."
With the sweet came the bitter. Vandy had its bowl hopes dimmed as it fell to 5-4 overall and 2-3 in the Southeastern Conference. (Kentucky improved to 7-2 overall and evened its league record at 2-2.
"It's really something to know that when you wake up tomorrow morning, you'll just have two more games left," said Vandy's Darrell Denson, a senior offensive tackle.
Until Higgs giant-stepped UK toward a bowl bid, the Wildcats and Vandy were locked in the kind of give and take many observers expected. Twice Vandy caught a blitzing UK in man-to-man coverage and burned the Wildcats for long touchdown passes. Twice UK mixed the pass and run with Bill Ransdell completing drives with TD throws.
The difference after two quarters? A single point (14-13) because Russell Hairston blocked a Vandy extra-point attempt.
"Being behind by one point at that stage is no big deal," Vandy coach George MacIntyre said. "Then we gave up that 84-yard touchdown run by Higgs. That was the big play, the turning point, for Kentucky."
Higgs' touchdown run came on a simple pitch to the right side. The little freshman (5-foot-7) was hit after gaining no more than five yards. And another Vandy defender closed in. But, Higgs bounced off the first tackler, stepped ahead of the second and was off. Only Harry Jones, who ran 91 yards for a touchdown against George Washington in 1951, has run further in a Kentucky uniform.
"It was a hard hit, but he didn't wrap me," Higgs said. "I was determined not to go down. I had a point to prove, that I could come back and have a good game. I wanted it so they (his UK teammates) could have faith in me once again."
Higgs, of course, was suspended along with four teammates for violating the team's midnight curfew. The penalty was to sit out Kentucky's game against North Texas State, which the Cats won 31-7 last week.
"I felt I owed it to the team," Higgs said of his running, which totaled 128 yards on 20 carries, "cause I disappointed them last week."
Although he had only 40 carries coming into the game, Higgs had an inkling he might get extra duty yesterday. Another running back, Mark Logan, took a helmet in the kidneys last week and didn't play yesterday. X-rays revealed a slight fracture in a vertebra, Logan said.
"I could have been used for a couple plays," Logan said, "but they were doing well without me."
Higgs' escape from what seemed a certain tackle wasn't the only time a UK player edged away from danger.
With Vandy leading 13-7 in the second quarter, the Cats drove inside the Commodore 20-yard line. Faced with a third-and-five at the 18, Ransdell was flushed from the pocket. While rolling right, Ransdell was grabbed around the ankles. Another Vandy defender, with his arms raised high, rushed the UK quarterback. Ransdell threw a pass underhanded, a la baseball star Dan Quisenberry, to fullback Chris Derry at the 10. Derry scored untouched.
"Chris made a good catch from what I heard," a poker-faced Ransdell said. The UK quarterback, who earlier changed the play at the line of scrimmage and hit roommate Joe Phillips on a 12-yard touchdown pass, was knocked flat right after flipping the ball to Derry.
"Everybody saw him wrapped up and thought the play was over," Vandy defensive tackle Karl Jordan said.
The Commodores had a similar reaction to the long run by Higgs, Jordan said.
"He (Higgs) was hit hard by a good tackle and everybody froze," Jordan said. "When he took off we couldn't get on our horses and catch him.
"That's not good defense, but it's human nature."
Vanderbilt could muster no more than a field goal in the second half. Ricky Anderson kicked a 53-yard field goal, the second-longest in Vandy history, to cut UK's lead to 21-16.
In the final seconds of the first half, Anderson was wide to the right on a 32-yard field-goal attempt, only his third miss in 18 tries this season.
Following Anderson's field goal, Vandy threatened again almost immediately. A 33-yard Paul Calhoun punt into the stiff breeze set up the Commodores at the UK 37. Three plays later, Calhoun intercepted a Kurt Page pass.
Joey Worley booted field goals of 49 and 50 yards to increase UK's lead to 27-16.
In punt formation from his own end zone in the final seconds, Calhoun ran out the clock and gave up a safety.
"With the exception of two plays, the defense played pretty darn good," Claiborne said. "I'm sure they gave up yardage (Vandy had 347 passing yards) but we kept them out of the end zone."
Despite the wind, which came from the south in gusts of up to 15 mph, and rain, Page completed 31 of 49 passes.
"Football is an outdoor game," the Vandy quarterback said. "You just take what comes."
Both of Page's touchdown passes came in the first half against man-to-man coverage that left receivers wide open.
On the first one, split end Joe Kelly lined up on the left side and sprinted downfield toward what looked like a slant over the middle. But as Page cocked his arm, Kelly broke outside and hauled in an easy 43-yard touchdown pass.
"It was awfully lonely out there," said Tony Mayes, the UK defensive back who was burned on the play. "I glanced at the quarterback. As soon as I did, he (Kelly) took off."
With the score tied at 7-7 in the second quarter, it was Chuck Scott's turn to exploit UK's man. Scott beat Gordon Jackson on a slant pattern, avoided an onrushing Maurice Douglass and ran for a 75-yard touchdown. The play gave the Commodores a 13-7 lead and allowed Scott to break the Vandy record for career TD receptions with 19.
Scott, a senior, was only too painfully aware that he probably has only two regular season games (against Virginia Tech and Tennessee) in which to extend the record.
"After losing a game that is so important to us, it falls off into insignificance," he said of the record.