Date story was published: Sunday, November 5, 1989
If nothing else, credit Kentucky with proving a point. As the Wildcats showed yesterday, it is indeed possible to win a football game 31-0 and be decidedly unimpressive in doing so.
"We've got to get better," said Coach Jerry Claiborne.
Chris Tolbert did return a punt 58 yards for a touchdown. Linebacker Jeff Brady was responsible for three turnovers -- a fumble recovery and two interceptions. And Steve Phillips and Mike Thomas each scored his first collegiate touchdown as UK blanked the battered Bearcats 31-0 at a less-than- full Commonwealth Stadium (46,195).
That did not mean, however, Kentucky silenced its critics. Starting at the top.
"We're happy to get the win and not have anybody seriously hurt," Claiborne said. "But I don't think we played an outstanding game, by any means."
Exhibit A: the stat sheet. Kentucky managed a mere 264 yards total offense, the second-lowest output for the already embattled UK attack. Despite a 21-0 halftime lead, UK was somehow outgained 90-73. Kentucky managed 12 first downs on the game, same as UC. The home team had a punt blocked for the first time this season. It dropped a pass in the end zone for the -- ouch -- fourth time this year. And it watched the Bearcats control the football 36 minutes, 55 seconds to 23:05.
"We dropped passes, we had penalties, we missed tackles," Claiborne said. "I thought the defense played pretty well. But the first three third downs Cincinnati had, we let them get first downs. We just didn't do what we're supposed to."
Asked if UK's performance would have beaten any other team on its schedule, Claiborne said, "I doubt that it would've beaten anybody else but Cincinnati. It probably wouldn't have beaten them if they weren't so bunged up."
Thus UK did what the coaches feared. Brady called it "playing to the level of your opponent. We watched what Miami (56-0) and West Virginia (69-3) did to them. We wanted to do the same thing. But we didn't."
"I really thought we'd have a big offensive day," said quarterback Freddie Maggard. "But we didn't."
Alfred Rawls rushed for 60 yards on 10 carries before being pulled. Thomas, a sophomore, had 42 yards on 10 attempts, including a 7-yard run for a score. Maggard completed nine of 17 passes for 111 yards and one score.
A terrific score. UK produced three offensive highlights yesterday and Steve Phillips was in on two. The first came in the first quarter when he made a great, one-handed leaping grab of a Maggard floater in the back of the end zone, giving UK a 7-0 lead.
"I saw guys in front of him so I put a little arc on it," Maggard said. "It was a bad pass really. But he just made a great catch."
Phillips' second heroic came in the third quarter when he spotted Maggard scrambling, ad-libbed a pattern and caught a 41-yard pass from the quarterback, UK's longest pass play of '89. Alas, the very next play, tight end Bobby Henderson dropped a perfect Maggard pass in the end zone. Ken Willis kicked a 34-yard field goal for UK's final points.
Phillips' reception was not, however, Kentucky's longest play of the day. That belonged once again to the return game. Tolbert did the honors. Last week, the littlest rookie, Kurt Johnson, took a kickoff back from eight yards deep in the end zone against Georgia for a score, going one up on the junior cornerback. "I've been waiting over a year for mine," Tolbert said.
After having three previous TDs canceled by penalties earlier in his career, Tolbert finally got it, taking UC's second punt and sprinting 58 yards for the score. "All the blocking was there. I didn't have to elude anybody or anything," he said. "As soon as I got to the end zone I looked back for the flags but I didn't see any."
UK led 14-0. A 21-yard Rawls run made it 21-0 at the half. Thomas' 7-yard burst up the middle made it 28-0, before Willis added the finishing touch.
Kentucky did hold Cincinnati to 154 yards total offense. In the fourth quarter, the Bearcats had a first-and-goal at the UK 5-yard line. Three plays later, Brady plucked Tim Andrew's fumble out of the air -- giving the Newport native a turnover hat trick -- to preserve the shutout, Kentucky's first since 1987.
And yet Cincinnati coach Tim Murphy appeared happy with his team. "I told our players before the game that I wanted to see legitimate, sincere emotion on every single snap and we got that," said the first-year coach. "In fact, I told them I didn't care what the score was after the game as long as we did that."
Cincinnati still dropped to 1-7-1. It was the Bearcats' second straight 31-0 loss. Akron did last week's honors. And Murphy's team has been outscored 221-20 in its last five outings. "Don't get me wrong, I want to win every single game," he said. "But I don't have many more buttons to push."
Forgive Claiborne if he starts pounding his noggin on the control board. True, his team is now 5-3, the fifth straight year UK has won at least five games. But, on the heels of last week's 34-23 loss at Georgia, yesterday marked Kentucky's second straight unsatisfactory performance.
"Our intensity was a little better," Claiborne said. "But it's still not what it's going to have to be to finish up our last three games."
"I think our aggressiveness and intensity will key up a little bit next week when we play Vandy," Maggard said.
Could be. But, said Claiborne, "We've just got to get better."