Date story was published||| Sunday, September 23, 1990
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- As if teasing all afternoon, it waited until near the very end to rear its ugly head, slyly choosing the worst time to seize defeat from a possible Kentucky victory.
It was the big play.
And once again it killed the Cats.
Trapped deep in his own territory, final quarter and the score tied, North Carolina quarterback Todd Burnett hit split end Julius Reese on a 42-yard pass play to set up a booming 50-yard field goal by Clint Gwaltney to give the Tar Heels a 16-13 victory over Kentucky at Kenan Stadium.
After Gwaltney had tied the game 13-13 on a 37-yard field goal with 10:06 remaining, UK had failed by inches of making a first down at its own 45. But with seven minutes left, rather than risk losing field position by daring for the first down, Cat coach Bill Curry decided a deep punt would hinder the Heels.
"I really felt like we could get the ball back in good shape and have plenty of time to work it down and get a field goal," Curry said. "And we did put them back."
But the Cats couldn't hold. Second-and-10 from his 18, Burnett lofted a pass down the left sideline. UK cornerback Sterling Ward failed to find the flight of the football. And Reese made the catch at the UK 40 -- the fifth time this season the Wildcat defense had allowed a pass of 32 yards or more.
Three plays later, 4:31 remaining, Gwaltney drilled his 50-yard game-winner.
"And that," Curry said, "would have been good for 60 yards."
This on a day when Kentucky lost its starting quarterback, Freddie Maggard, with a shoulder separation in the second quarter; was sacked six times and hurried repeatedly; flat-out dropped two second-half interceptions; allowed more than 200 yards rushing while gaining just 86; and committed nine penalties.
Yet the Cats could have won.
"There's definitely an esprit de corps among our team that it wants to win," Curry said. "We obviously haven't taught them how to yet."
So Kentucky dropped to 1-3. Coach Mack Brown's tender Tar Heels -- 2-20 the past two seasons -- are 3-1.
"This was a major step forward for us," Brown said. "We still have a lot of work to do, but this is a step forward."
Kentucky got to work early, making its first drive its best. Maggard engineered five straight first downs before progress stopped at the Tar Heel 8-yard line. A 6-yard sack plus a 9-yard loss on a busted sweep made UK settle for Doug Pelfrey's 37-yard field goal.
Two punts after Natrone Means' 2-yard run gave North Carolina a 7-3 lead, Maggard was done for the day. After a pass from his own 5-yard line, the junior quarterback was driven to the turf by a Heel defender.
"My (right) shoulder popped out as he hit me," Maggard said. "Then it popped back in when I hit the ground."
Still, Maggard was out. "I wanted to go back in, but the doctors wouldn't let me," he said, after being diagnosed with, in the words of UK physician Dr. Mary Lloyd Ireland, "a posterior subluxation" of the right shoulder.
In came sophomore Brad Smith (11-of-21 for 118 yards), who later in the quarter completed five straight passes to tie the game at 10. The fifth was a flair to the right flat for fullback Al Baker, who cut back toward the middle, got a crushing block from tight end Rodney Jackson, and swerved to the right sideline before hitting the end zone.
"We went in at halftime and felt good," Smith said. "We came back with the attitude that we were starting over, tied 10-10, and we wanted to play our game."
Didn't happen. Despite Mike Thomas' return to the backfield, the rushing attack managed only 86 yards. And when Smith wasn't being sacked, he was jumping around in the pocket, too often trying to find yardage instead of receivers.
"Give them credit, they were blitzing and doing various things," Smith said. "But a lot of times I was too hesitant. I was holding the ball too long."
Meaning the Cats could not hold the momentum. Or the football. Second possession of the second half, Kentucky picked up two first downs and, thanks to a Carolina roughing-the-passer penalty, reached the Tar Heel 15.
First down, Baker took a handoff around left end, appeared to have daylight ahead, only to have the football knocked out of his hands and out of bounds at the 12.
"I had the ball in the wrong arm," Baker said, "and their guy got his hand out and hit my arm. I was trying to hold on to it and just popped out of my hand."
"If he had hung onto it," Curry said, "I'm not sure anyone could have tackled him."
Thus UK again settled for a Pelfrey field goal -- a 32-yarder. And a 13-10 lead with 3:12 left in the third quarter.
After that, "They just out-toughed us late in the game," linebacker Randy Holleran said.
Gwaltney's 37-yard field goal tied the game 13-13. Kentucky responded with a first down. But on third-and-five from its 41, Smith tried to scramble for the first-down stick and came up inches short.
"That was one of those plays where I was hesitant," he said. "I tried to run for it when I should have dropped it off to the running back and let him get the yardage."
Curry flirted briefly with trying for the first down, but backed off. And the move appeared to pay off when UK covered Hawk's 41-yard punt by tackling the Heels at the 18.
But then, alas, came the 42-yard pass completion. The dreaded big play, that again led to defeat.
"We finally put ourselves in a position to win the football game," Curry said, "and we couldn't deliver. Obviously, we haven't grown to that point yet."