Date story was published: Sunday, November 12, 1989
NASHVILLE -- They were nothing if not bumbling, stumbling long-distance runners, stubbing toes, losing their balance to the point of falling, then crawling on hands and knees until finally the tips of their fingers grazed the tape at the finish line.
"We made a lot of mistakes," said Coach Jerry Claiborne, "but we played hard. That continues to be a trademark of this team. We play hard."
Not always well. Not always smart. But for the first time in five years, the Kentucky Wildcats are a winning team. Surviving a multitude of mistakes, and penalties, and ineptitude, somehow, someway UK vanquished a long list of long- lasting demons yesterday, beating Vanderbilt 15-11 at Dudley Stadium.
Gone: a 14-game road losing streak. Gone: a 15-game Southeastern Conference road losing streak. Gone: a string of four straight non-winning regular seasons.
Said defensive tackle Oliver Barnett (10 tackles, four for losses, and one quarterback sack): "It feels like a big weight has been lifted from our shoulders."
Down 11-9 in the final quarter, unable to muster any kind of march all day, the UK offense drove 46 yards in 12 plays, converting a key fourth-and-one play along the way, until sophomore Mike Thomas carried it in from 8 yards out for the go-ahead score.
The Kentucky defense then made the score stand up. First, UK cornerback Albert Burks intercepted a Vanderbilt pass at the Kentucky 5-yard line with 5:13 left. On the Commodores' final drive, twice UK batted down 37-yard Hail Mary passes in the end zone -- the last one coming with no time left on the clock -- to preserve the win.
Kentucky is 6-3, its first six-win season since 1984. The Wildcats are 2-3 in the Southeastern Conference, winning their first conference road game since November 1984.
"It was a real good victory," Claiborne said. "No. 1, because it was on the road. No. 2, because it was in the conference. And No. 3, because we got behind and came back to win."
Thus the ends justified the sloppy means. Among them: 10 penalties; four sacks; a deflected punt; a safety when quarterback Freddie Maggard intentionally grounded a pass from his own end zone; a penalty when an offensive lineman grabbed UK tailback Alfred Rawls and tried to help him across the first-down marker.
"It seemed like the first half we couldn't run a play without getting a penalty," Claiborne said.
Not that Vandy performed any better. The 1-8 Commodores botched a punt snap, missed a wide-open touchdown pass, failed at a fake field goal and turned the football over four times, blundering their way to a seventh straight defeat.
"What beat us," said Vandy coach Watson Brown, "was turnovers again and a couple of punting situations."
Those Vandy problems led to Kentucky's first nine points, all Ken Willis field goals -- from 29, 24 and 38 yards. Jeff Brady's block of a Vandy punt set up the first. A Commodore fumble inside the Vandy 30-yard line preceded Willis' second. A third-quarter botched punt snap brought about the Willis hat trick.
With freshman quarterback Mike Healey making his first collegiate start, Vandy drove 75 yards to tie the score at 3-3 on a 22-yard field goal by Johnny Clark.
UK mistakes ended in a safety that untied it. A Cat clip on a punt return started an early second-quarter drive at the UK 11. A false start penalty deducted 5 more yards. A hard Vandy rush made Maggard scramble to his left, then fire the football upfield 20 yards into the Vanderbilt bench.
"I saw Alfred Jones flash in front of me," said Maggard. "But he cut back inside, which was the right play, but I threw it outside."
The disbelieving refs ruled Maggard guilty of intentional grounding in his own end zone. Vanderbilt was awarded a safety. The Commodores led 5-3.
Willis' second field goal made it 6-5 UK at intermission. But just when it appeared a touchdown might be too much to ask, Vandy opened the second-half with an honest-to-goodness scoring march. Healey hit Derrick Gragg for 33 yards to the UK 14. Three plays later, Healey scored on a 2-yard quarterback sneak. The Commodore try for two points failed. But Vandy led 11-6.
Alas, the Commodores couldn't hold it. More mistakes. This time Vandy botched a punt snap, the ball eluding punter David Lawrence at his own 33. Willis earned the field goal hat trick with a 38-yarder.
Finally, in the final period, taking over at Vandy's 46, the Cats turned serious. "This is for the season," barked Maggard in the opening huddle. "This is to shut everybody up about the road streak and the losing seasons."
As it turned out, this was smash-face time. UK pounded Thomas inside for seven carries on the 12-play drive, his longest being the final carry, an 8-yard touchdown run. "I just kind of cut back to the left side and the hole was there," he said. "The line did a great job and Andy Murray made a great block."
Four plays earlier, Murray converted a clutch run. After another UK receiver inexplicably ran a 5-yard pattern on a third-and-six, the Cats faced a fourth- and-an-eyelash at the Vandy 16. Field goal? "If we couldn't make that," said Claiborne, after Murray did make it, plus a couple of more yards, "then we didn't deserve to win."
A deserved victory? Debatable. A victory? No denying.
"It wasn't the best game in the world," said Claiborne. "But we're happy."