Date story was published: Sunday, November 14, 1993
The only things missing were a ribbon and a bow.
They had slopped through the mud for nearly four frustrating quarters, these Kentucky Wildcats, their defense struggling (successfully) to stay afoot and make tackles, their offense struggling (unsuccessfully) to stick the slippery ball in the end zone. Now here they were, with 90 seconds left and East Carolina snapping the football, hoping somehow, some way to save a winning season and a bowl bid.
And then, just as hope appeared mired in the muck, there it was, bouncing around on the brown ground, an East Carolina fumble for heaven's sakes, squirting out of the hands of one player, then another, then another, still flopping as free as a fish on dry land.
"I was just kind of standing there," said linebacker Marty Moore. "And there it was."
"I just fell on it," said Moore, at the ECU 30-yard line with 1:19 remaining.
A lucky seven snaps later, Nicky Nickels, who until this day had never attempted a collegiate field goal, drilled a picture-perfect 29-yarder with 28 seconds remaining to give the Wildcats a 6-3 win before 34,500, the smallest crowd ever for a UK game in Commonwealth Stadium.
A win that improved UK to 6-4, clinching its first winning season since 1989. A win that all but cemented Coach Bill Curry's squad a post-season invitation -- the school's first bowl bid since 1984 -- most likely to the Peach Bowl on New Year's Eve in Atlanta.
"I guarantee our team deserves to go if anybody does," said Curry in a post-game spin-doctoring performance that would have made David Gergen envious. "We've got six of the best wins in America."
Yesterday's win, against a 2-7 ECU team thumped 52-26 last week by Tulsa, nearly did not come to be.
"When I saw the conditions," said Curry of the field soaked and muddy by pounding rains, "and East Carolina's physical talent, I felt like it would be a very hard game."
It was so hard UK trailed for 43:37, from the 12:26 mark of the first quarter until Nickels' 24-yard field goal tied the game with 13:39 left. "We continued to make error after error," Curry said. "And it turned into a war."
Junior Smith, the nation's fourth-best rusher, set up the game's first (and for what the longest time looked like only) score, rumbling 63 yards to set up a 21-yard Chad Holcomb field goal and a 3-0 East Carolina lead, just 2:34 into the contest.
Four plays later, UK had lost its starting quarterback when Pookie Jones left the game with a sprained left ankle and was replaced by backup Antonio O'Ferral. "It was not real bad," said Curry of Jones' injury. "but we felt like Antonio was a good person to play in these conditions."
Even if O'Ferral himself was nursing a knee so sore he nearly took himself out of the game. "I kept trying to decide whether to tell coach I just couldn't go anymore," said the sophomore. "I came real close, twice."
Which was much like the UK offense, which three times came extremely close to scoring, only to come up empty.
In the second quarter, O'Ferral directed a 21-play, 87-yard drive that died on the East Carolina 2-yard line when tailback Moe Williams (129 yards on 25 carries) was stopped on fourth-and-goal. In the third quarter, fullback Damon Hood burst free for a 49-yard run to the ECU 4. Next play, Hood fumbled the ball right back to the Pirates.
Finally, in the final period, after an 18-yard East Carolina punt had led to a 24-yard Nickels field goal to tie the game at 3-3, Kentucky took 17 plays to drive from its own 30 to the ECU 5, only to have Nickels miss a chip-shot 22-yard field goal with 1:45 remaining.
"When I came off the field everybody just kept telling me I was going to get another chance to win it," Nickels said.
Those psychic Cats were right. Three plays later, Smith put the ball on the ground -- "I was trying for extra yardage and it hurt the team," Smith said -- and the fumble squirted through the hands of several UK and ECU players right to Moore, who collapsed on it at the Pirate 30.
O'Ferral threw 7 yards to Randy Wyatt, (after an incompletion) 4 yards to Alfonzo Browning, (after spiking the ball to stop the clock) 3 yards to Wyatt. After a timeout, O'Ferral took the ball up the middle on a quarterback draw, finding a clear place to land at the ECU 12.
"That's what we wanted to do," O'Ferral said. "I was supposed to get it to the middle of the field. I was lucky enough to find a clear place to fall."
On came Nickels, who survived two East Carolina "Ice the Kicker" timeouts, a pep-scream from center Wes Jackson, some advice from Moore ("I just told him he'd better make this kick, only that's not quite the way I put it," said the linebacker) and a threat from this teammates.
"On the sidelines," said Moe Williams, "we were saying we weren't going to let Nicky sleep in the dorm if he missed the kick."
He wouldn't have been the only one to lose sleep. A tie would have dropped UK to 5-4-1 heading into next Saturday's finale against sixth-ranked Tennessee. Bye-bye winning season? Bye-bye bowl?
"If you want to achieve anything in football, you must win these types of games," Curry said.
And sometimes it's better to be lucky than good.