Date story was published: Sunday, September 1, 1996
It tattooed itself with nicknames like "Mob Squad" and "Death Row," vowed to be the best unit of its kind in school history, talked the talked and last night walked the walk.
Tim Couch had his brief moment of glory, lighting up the Kentucky night with a sterling 20-yard pass, but "Third and Tough" belonged to the Louisville defense. Which was more than tough.
Pushing the UK offensive line off the ball all night, then getting some big plays from its special teams, the Cards pasted the Cats 38-14 last night before a crowd of 59,384, the largest in Commonwealth Stadium history.
Tony Esters, a sophomore from Lexington, blocked two Kentucky punts, the first setting up a field goal, the second producing a touchdown. Safety Rico Clark returned a Ray McLaurin fumble 48 yards for a touchdown. Cornerback Sam Madison, a Playboy All-American, returned a Billy Jack Haskins pass 41 yards for another score as Louisville won the in-state meeting for the second straight season.
But while the first two meetings of this renewed rivalry were nail-biters - UK won 20-14 in '94; Louisville triumphed 13-10 in '95 -this one was lopsided from the second quarter on when the Cards put 17 points on the board and never looked back.
Aside from a pair of Kio Sanford punt returns in the first half - the first for 31 yards; the second 62, which set up a score - the Cats got their moment of future hope from the expected source, the heralded true freshman quarterback from Leslie County.
Couch entered the game for the first time with 13:12 left in the third quarter and directed the wounded Cat attack the rest of the way. On the final play of the third quarter, after UK recovered Miguel Montano's fumbled punt return at the 20, Couch hit tight end Isaac Curtis with a picture-perfect 20-yard scoring strike, pulling the Cats to within 24-14.
But the next series, Couch failed to pick up a first down on a fourth-down quarterback sneak from his own 42. Next play, Louisville quarterback Jason Payne scrambled 32 yards. Four plays later, on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, Card back Otis Floyd dived over the top for the score, putting any Couch heroics out of reach.
To be sure, the night belonged to the Louisville defense. Seven starters returned from a unit that led the nation in forcing turnovers and was seventh in the nation in scoring defense.
And through three quarters last night, the Cards held the Cats to 92 total yards. They sacked UK starter Haskins five times in the first half alone, then set down Couch once in the second. With the veteran front four ("Death Row") dominating UK's inexperienced offensive front, middle linebacker Tyrus McCloud was all over the field, twice sacking Haskins and wreaking general havoc.
And, unable to move the football, Kentucky was forced to punt - a lot. And Louisville took advantage.
Esters' first block came on the final play of the first half, swatting Jimmy Carter's attempt at the UK 18-yard line. The ball bounced out of bounds at the 8. The Kentucky defense held, but David Akers kicked a 20-yard field goal, cutting the Cats' lead to 7-3.
Esters' second block came with 5:48 left in the second quarter. This time, Carter never got the ball off, as Esters greeted him just as the Cat punter was swinging his leg. The ball bounced into the hands of freshman Courtney Dinkins, who scooted 15 yards for the touchdown. Akers' extra point made it 10-7 Louisville.
Less than two minutes later it was 17-7. Third play of the next series, on a simple running play up the middle, Cat tailback McLaurin coughed up the football. Clark, the Cards' senior safety, scooped it up and breezed 48 yards for the touchdown. Akers' second extra point in 107 seconds gave the Cardinals a 10-point lead.
It was 17-7 at the half, but the Cardinal defense scored again to start the second half. Three plays into the third period, Haskins overthrew Sanford and right to the opportunistic Madison, who first tried the middle of the field for his return, but cut back down the left side and into the end zone for the 41-yard score. That made it 24-7.
That was also it for Haskins, who was 5-for-12 for 45 yards with the one interception, but who also did not get much help from the guys up front.
In fact, until Couch's arrival, Sanford provided Kentucky's only offensive spark of the first half. The junior took Louisville's first punt 31 yards to the Cardinal 46, though the Cats immediately went three-and-out. The second punt, however, Sanford picked up a key block from Kiyo Wilson and roared down the right sideline 62 yards to the Louisville 8-yard line.
With such little distance to travel, this time the Cats succeeded. McLaurin did the honors, going 2 yards on the first carry, 6 on the second for the six. Brian Johnson's extra point made it 7-0 with 9:25 left in the first quarter.