Date story was published: Sunday, November 26, 1989
If a single play can symbolize a season, yesterday's did. Kentucky led eighth-ranked Tennessee by a point. Kentucky was driving. Facing a do-or-die, fourth-and-one inside the Volunteer 35-yard line with seven minutes left in the third quarter, Kentucky called a sweep. No time for a mistake. No margin for error.
"It was the kind of play where you have to run it almost perfect for it to work," fullback Andy Murray would say afterward. "You can't have any breakdowns."
But a mistake was made. A block was missed. A Tennessee tackler, Mark Moore, charged through to turn wide the path of UK tailback Alfred Rawls. That brought UT linebacker Daryl Hardy on for the tackle. Result: 6-yard loss. Significance: Kentucky broke down.
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The visiting Vols drove 61 yards for a touchdown and their first lead and the tide had turned. Tennessee had overcome a halftime deficit and went on to whip Kentucky 31-10 yesterday at Commonwealth Stadium.
The Volunteers, now 9-1 and probably headed to the Cotton Bowl, amassed 462 total yards in winning their fifth straight over the Wildcats. Freshman tailback Chuck Webb rushed for 145 yards, all but 23 in the first half. Quarterback Andy Kelly threw for 210 yards and a score. Punter Kent Elmore averaged 44 yards a kick, twice pinning UK inside its own 10-yard line.
The opportunistic Tennessee defense intercepted three UK passes. Linebacker Shon Walker returned the third 18 yards for a touchdown.
"Tennessee," said UK coach Jerry Claiborne, "has an outstanding team."
And yet 6-5 Kentucky played right with the Vols, even led the nation's No. 8 team the better part of three quarters. But, as so many times this season against the better teams on the Wildcat schedule, a key mistake turned the tide. "Not making that fourth down," said Claiborne, "was a key play."
Despite Webb's 122 yards the first half, despite the fact UT outgained UK 249-156, Kentucky was up 10-9 at the half.
The defense limited the Vols to three Greg Burke field goals. The Wildcat offense meanwhile pieced together an impressive 13-play, 80-yard march for the half's only touchdown. Rawls scored from 8 yards out. Ken Willis' 47-yard field goal made it 10-6 with 2:37 left. Sixteen seconds before intermission, Burke kicked a 29-yarder to pull UT to within a point.
Successive interceptions started the second half. UT's Walker tipped a Freddie Maggard pass into the hands of Vol safety Carl Pickens. Tennessee gave the ball right back, a Kelly toss finding Cat safety Ron Robinson.
Here, the game turned. Taking over at the 48, Kentucky picked up a first down at the Tennessee 42. Two plays later, it was third-and-three at the 35. Murray was stopped for a 2-yard gain. Fourth-and-one. Kentucky called time out.
"We wanted to make sure we had our kids in the right position," Claiborne said. "I think we had a couple of players injured and we were trying to get them in and out."
This was the call: Rawls lines up in a slot on the left side, then swings around to take a handoff from the quarterback. "I can either take it on outside and turn it back to the middle," he said. "I've got the choice."
This time, Rawls had no choice. Because the play is designed as a sweep, it takes time to develop. This time, Rawls had no time.
"We just missed a block," Claiborne said. "A guy came inside and we didn't touch him. We never stopped. Nothing works if you don't block 'em."
This did not work. Moore, who said he "thought it would be a pass," blew past UK tackle Chuck Bradley and grabbed Rawls in the backfield. Rawls squirmed free, but just long enough to be collared by Hardy, 6 yards behind the line.
"I don't think one particular play can get you down," said UK tackle Mike Pfeifer. "But that play got us in trouble."
"That fourth down play was big for two reasons," said Doug Matthews, Tennessee's defensive coordinator. "No. 1, it stopped their momentum. No. 2, after that, they didn't run the ball like they did before."
Because after that, UK trailed. The Volunteers marched 61 yards in 12 plays for the go-ahead score. Twice Kelly hit fullback Greg Amsler with key screen passes, one for 15 yards, another for 11.
"They did a good job of taking what we gave them," said Robinson. "On those plays we had everybody covered but the fullback, and they threw it to them. We gambled and they took advantage of it."
A 9-yard pass to Thomas Woods gave UT a first-and-goal at the 5. Two runs later, Tony Thompson scored from a yard out. Kelly ran in the two-point conversion. Tennessee led 17-10.
And the Vols never looked back. UK clipped on the kickoff return. Moore dropped Maggard for a 10-yard sack to the 8. Bill Hawk's punt into the wind covered 17 yards, stopping at the Wildcat 25.
One play later, Kelly hit a wide open Alvin Harper with a 22-yard touchdown pass to make it 24-10. In the final period, UK backed up at its own 17, UT's Walker picked off a Maggard pass and went untouched 18 yards for the score.
"Tennessee's kicking game was superb," said Claiborne. "Their quarterback did an excellent job. He threw the ball well. And we didn't feel like we executed, especially our passing game, as well as we hoped."
And so another Kentucky football season ended below its hopes. A single play in a long season did not make that so. But yesterday, a single play was symbolic.
Said Andy Murray, "Big plays win the big games. And they made the big play."