Story published: Sunday, September 11, 2005
Finishing was a problem most of last night for the Kentucky football team.
It started on the opening kickoff return, when Keenan Burton appeared on his way to a 99-yard touchdown only to slip and fall on the 6-yard line.
It was also a major problem for several Wildcats regulars who were unable to finish the game because of injuries.And with five minutes remaining, it looked as if Burton's stumble would beminor compared to the catastrophic slip-up Kentucky faced before ultimately pulling out a 41-29 victory.
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When Division I-AA Idaho State blocked a UK punt, returned it 26 yards and went ahead 29-28 with 5:06 left, visions of last year's embarrassing 28-16 home loss to Ohio University had to be dancing in the heads of the 59,519 fans at Commonwealth Stadium.
Then the Wildcats finally found a finisher in the form of sophomore running back Rafael Little.
Little, stepping in for the injured Burton on the kickoff return team, did what Burton nearly pulled off to start the game, taking the ensuing kickoff 99 yards to quickly reclaim the lead for the Cats.
Redshirt freshman Shomari Moore picked off Idaho State quarterback Matt Hagler on the next possession, and senior running back Arliss Beach's 3-yard run with 1:18 left finally finished off the pesky Bengals.
The kickoff-return TD capped a huge night for Little, who finished with 233 all-purpose yards: 19 rushes for 104 yards, three catches for 30 yards, and the 99-yard return.
"He showed he can be a big-time player in any league," Kentucky Coach Rich Brooks said. "You can't have a better exclamation point for a rebound than when Idaho State took the lead on us late in the fourth quarter and he takes the ball and returns it back all the way for a touchdown."
UK was able to avoid a potentially season-killing loss, but that's where the good news ended.
The Wildcats, already without several regulars because of injuries, had more casualties last night.
Burton broke his foot and will miss at least 4-5 weeks; starting free safety Marcus McClinton suffered a season-ending dislocated kneecap and torn patella tendon; and Tommy Cook also suffered a dislocated kneecap that will keep him out at least 3-4 weeks. Receiver Glenn Holt and starting defensive end B. Jay Parsons were both forced to leave with sprained ankles.
So while the Cats improved to 1-1 heading into Saturday's non-conference game at Indiana, the mood in the post-game news conference was somber.
"It makes me sick with all the injuries we've had," Brooks said. "I'm just beside myself. I'm sick for the players that have worked so hard, and to see what I think has a chance to be a decent football team pretty much decimated by injuries in the first two games is hard to swallow."
Kentucky had already suffered key injuries going into the Idaho State game, including the loss of starting defensive tackle Lamar Mills to a season-ending knee injury last week.
And Idaho State showed early that it didn't intend on coming to Lexington just to take a whuppin' and collect a paycheck.
Alexis Bwenge scored on a 6-yard run on the first play from scrimmage after Burton's kickoff return to give UK a 7-0 lead.
The UK secondary, which wasn't tested downfield against Louisville last week, got burned deep on its first play last night. Idaho State's Hagler play-faked and found Dane Simmons behind the defense for a 63-yard gain to the Kentucky 23.
UK managed to hold the Bengals to a Jaret Johnson 32-yard field goal, but Idaho State then recovered an onside kick near midfield. Two more Johnson field goals gave Idaho State a 9-7 lead early in the second quarter.
Brooks noticed his team was flat.
"We were beat up physically and kind of played that way," Brooks said. "We didn't have much quickness, energy or spark until the second half."
After being outgained 183-15 in the first quarter, the UK offense got going in the second. Quarterback Andre Woodson led a seven-play, 86-yard drive that culminated in Burton's leaping touchdown grab in the right corner of the end zone that gave UK a 14-9 lead five minutes before intermission.
The Bengals didn't flinch, driving right back into scoring position as halftime approached. ISU connected on a 26-yard pass play from Hagler to Shedrack Okoebor on third-and-18 to keep the drive alive.
The Bengals bypassed another field-goal attempt on third-and-goal from the 1 to go for six with three seconds remaining in the first half. Hagler barreled into the end zone on a keeper as the horn sounded, sending Idaho State to the break with a 16-14 lead as mild boos rang from the Commonwealth Stadium crowd.
The same defense that held the high-powered Louisville offense in check in the second half last week was shredded for 448 yards by the Bengals. ISU went 9-for-17 on third-down conversions.
"We let them run unmolested downfield for some reason, and our pass rush was non-existent," Brooks said.
Little carried five times for 36 yards on UK's first drive of the second half, repeatedly bouncing off defenders and breaking through arm tackles.
Woodson then found senior tight end Jeremiah Drobney for a 9-yard TD strike at 7:57 for a 21-16 Wildcats advantage. The UK defense then held, and a 2-yard Beach run gave the Cats some temporary breathing room (28-16) with 1:42 left in the third.
The Wildcats weren't off the hook yet, thought. Taylor Begley missed a 36-yard field goal that would have given the Cats a 15-point cushion, and Idaho State cut the deficit to 28-23 on Hagler's 3-yard quarterback draw at 6:54.
Okoebor then smothered Tim Masthay's punt, and Sterling Minnear scooped it up at the 26 and ran it in for a go-ahead score that left the crowd in stunned silence with Idaho State in front 29-28.
That's when Little came to the rescue.
"I knew somebody had to step up," Little said. "It was a great big hole, and I just saw it and took it."