Date story was published: Sunday, November 6, 1988
Down to the wire the decision went, sweet victory and bitter defeat hanging on the flight of a single football. Only this time, for what surely felt like the first time, Kentucky's luck kissed the winds of change.
UK survived last night. Where before it would have surely lost, where the breaks would have surely fallen wrong, this time Vanderbilt's 47-yard field goal in the waning seconds fell short, leaving the Wildcats with a dramatic 14-13 victory over the Commodores at Commonwealth Stadium.
"We," said UK coach Jerry Claiborne, were fortunate to win."
Two bullets did the Cats dodge, the first coming after Vandy quarterback Eric Jones hit fullback Andy McCarroll with a 5-yard scoring pass, cutting the Kentucky lead to a single point with 32 seconds left.
But the Commodores conversion attempt for two points, and probably victory, failed when good coverage and a good pass rush forced Jones to throw too early and too high for wide receiver Boo Mitchell.
"We were in zone and Mitchell thought we were in man," said Johnson. "He kept trying to get outside and we bumped and bumped until the second Jones had to throw it. It was too high and I batted it down." Yet the UK celebration was premature. Vandy's onside kick bounded off the hands of Wildcat receiver John Bolden and into the hands of Commodore Brent Turner. Two completions later, Vandy was at the UK 30, but out of timeouts. Jones threw the ball out of bounds, stopping the clock with 11 seconds remaining.
On came Johnny Clark, a junior from Birmingham, for a 47-yard attempt at a Vanderbilt victory into a wind gusting to 20 miles an hour. "I was scared to death," said UK defensive back Chris Tolbert. "It was right down the middle. It just didn't have the leg."
The football landed in the middle of the end zone. Five yards short.
"We just knew we were going to stop them," said Cat safety Ron Robinson. "One way or another. It was just a different feeling this time."
Where previously the Cats had lost it at the end -- need they be reminded, Georgia and Tennessee last year; Alabama and LSU this season -- the Wildcats followed up on their win over Georgia two weeks back. Recording their third consecutive victory, UK improved to 5-4 on the season and 2-3 in the Southeastern Conference.
Vanderbilt dropped to 3-5 overall and 2-4 in league play. And out of the bowl picture. "I don't know what to say," said Commodore coach Watson Brown. "I give Kentucky a lot of credit on how well they played tonight."
Indeed, defensively, the Cats were a far sight better than a year ago when Jones started his road to Heisman hype, passing for 244 yards and four scores, rushing for 101 more as Vanderbilt rolled up 521 total yards on the way to a 38-29 victory in Nashville.
Last night, Jones completed 23 of 40 passes for 251 yards. But only one completion went for a touchdown, that the late pass to McCarroll. And the senior was held to 37 yards rushing. His longest gain was nine yards.
In fact, it was UK quarterback Glenn Fohr who turned out to be the rushing star this night. The senior had 65 yards on 10 carries, including runs of 24 and 26 yards. The first set up Kentucky's first score. The second held the Commodore comeback at bay a little longer.
Yet the Wildcats nearly shot themselves in the foot with penalties, committing 10 for 101 yards. "We should have had two scores or three in the first half," said Claiborne, "but we kept getting penalties."
So instead, the Cats settled for one, driving 60 yards in seven plays. Fohr starred. At the Vandy 44, under heavy pressure, he found Al Baker over the middle and the sophomore tailback eluded a tackler, gaining 20 yards before being brought down. Next play, the final play of the first quarter, Fohr scrambled 24 yards to the Commodore 3. On the first snap of the second quarter, Baker scored. Ken Willis' extra point made it 7-0.
It remained the same at intermission. Thus, for the seventh straight game, the UK defense held an opponent scoreless in the first quarter. And through the first two quarters, the Wildcat defenders did a good job of handling Vandy's high-tech offense, shutting down the wishbone and limiting Jones to 89 yards passing on seven completions in 13 attempts.
"I thought we dominated the first half," Claiborne said. "Then I thought they dominated the second."
"I thought we played pretty well the first half," said Johnson. "But I think Jones kind of got in a groove the second half."
The trouble for the Commodores was they trailed 14-0 before Jones cranked it up. "After the half, we started protecting Jones and moving the football," Brown said.
But not before Kentucky moved it again. Vanderbilt opted to take the wind in the third quarter. Said Claiborne, "That's why I thought it was so important to move the football facing the wind. I was really proud of the way we did there at the start of the second half."
The Cats marched 73 yards in 13 plays, all rushing plays, eating up over six minutes. The longest gain was a nine-yarder by Baker; the shortest three yards. Alfred Rawls scored from seven yards out. Willis' extra point made it 14-0.
But Vandy, with a little help from the Cats, climbed back in it. Late in the third period, Vandy started moving, gaining a first down at the UK 15. The drive stalled and Clark kicked a 28-yard field goal. But the Cats were called for a head slap, a personal foul penalty which gave the visitors a first-and- goal at the 5. Fullback Sean Guerin bulled in from there. Clark's extra point made it 14-7 UK.
Next, Vandy drove to the Wildcat 34. But UK cornerback Chris Tolbert -- noticing that Jones had pointed at wide receiver Tony Pearcey -- intercepted Jones' pass at the 8. "I should've knocked it down," Tolbert said afterward, "but I thought I could get some return yardage."
He got four. But thanks to a 26-yard scramble by Fohr, Kentucky moved to the Vandy 35. But Willis' 52-yard field goal missed wide right.
The Commodores took over with 3:06 remaining. On the first play, UK defensive end Tony Massey nearly made an interception, dropping a low Jones' throw. Next play, Jones hit Pearcey for 28 yards and off Vandy went. Ten plays later, the Commodores scored, failed on the two-point attempt, recovered the kick, moved into position, but, ultimately, missed the final kick.
"I think we deserved this win," said UK's Randy Holleran, a sophomore linebacker. "We've been on the other end so many times. But now our luck has changed."