Date story was published: Sunday, September 11, 1988
AUBURN, Ala. -- It was nuts. Just plain nuts. Start with the simple fact that midway through the final period, Kentucky was actually in the game. At Auburn. Against the defending Southeastern Conference champions. After being down 17-0. Better than that, the Wildcats had a chance to win it.
Ultimately, they did not. Seventh-ranked Auburn prevailed 20-10 in a game-long drizzle at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
But not before Kentucky pulled out the stops on offense. Not before Auburn saw a 17-0 lead shrink to 17-10 with nearly a full quarter to play. And not before the wildest, weirdest, nuttiest second half a college football fan could ever wish to see.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
"I'll bet TBS was going nuts," said UK tackle Mike Pfeifer. "I bet they were blowing fuses."
Or minds. Usually conservative Kentucky threw the football an astounding 44 times -- Glenn Fohr's 43 attempts are the second-most in school history. The second half produced five fumbles and two interceptions. In one fourth- quarter stretch, seven plays produced five turnovers.
"But we couldn't capitalize," said UK running back Ivy Joe Hunter. "I felt like if we could ever take the lead we could win the game. But we couldn't."
Truth is, the Cats were not supposed to entertain such dreams. Auburn was 9-1-2 last year. With Tracy Rocker, Lawyer Tillman, Walter Reeves and plenty of others returning, Pat Dye's club was the consensus pre-season pick to repeat as SEC champ. "This showed that we are a long way to becoming where we want to be as a football team," said Dye yesterday.
Surely plenty of that was Kentucky's doing. The Cats opened firing, using odd formations and one-back backfields, keeping the War Eagles off balance. "They had a good game plan," said Auburn nose guard Benji Roland. "They didn't drop back like we thought they would. They rolled out and away from our pursuit."
And, except for one second-half series, the Kentucky defense held firm, twice keeping the Tigers from the end zone after Auburn moved inside the 15 in the first half.
Both came early. After UK's Ken Willis missed a 47-yard field goal, Auburn popped tailback James Joseph loose for 37 yards. One play later, the Tigers had a first-and-goal at the one. Three snaps produced not a yard, and Chris Dickinson -- subbing for the suspended Win Lyle -- booted an 18-yard field goal.
In the second quarter, Auburn had a first down at the Kentucky 13. This time the Tigers got zilch. Wildcat defensive back Albert Burks intercepted Reggie Slack's pass in the end zone.
But as the defense shined, the offense stalled. Fohr was on target. Receivers were open. But there were dropped passes, four in the first half, and paralyzing penalties. "What really hurt us was the penalties," said UK coach Jerry Claiborne afterward, his team penalized 12 times for 88 yards.
"We got a lot of illegal procedure penalties," said Pfeifer. "The Auburn line would yell 'switch' and we were supposed to go on 'set' and we'd jump. But, still, there's no way we should have made all those penalties."
Finally, UK paid the price. Joseph broke clean again, this time going 33 yards for a second-quarter touchdown. It became 17-0 shortly after halftime. Slack found Tillman for 25 yards; fullback Vincent Harris broke a 20-yard gain to the visitors' 5. After an Auburn penalty, the wildness began. UK's Tony Massey hit Slack from behind. The quarterback dropped the ball. But Joseph scooped it up and scurried to the 2. One play later, he scored from the 1-yard line.
"We just kind of came out relaxed for that series," said defensive tackle Oliver Barnett. "And it hurt us."
Though not as badly as first suspected. The blowout didn't begin. For the first time, UK's offense moved and scored. Willis' 43-yard field goal capped a 42-yard, 15 play drive.
Kentucky next appeared to get a great break when defensive tackle Donnie Gardner intercepted a Slack pass inside the Tiger 20. Just as quickly, Gardner fumbled and Joseph recovered. "One of 'em stood me up and they all went for the ball," said Gardner later.
Next possession, UK marched 60 yards in 13 plays. Alfred Jones, a junior college transfer at wide receiver, made a clutch 16-yard catch on a third-and- 11. On third-and-one from the Auburn 6, Alfred Rawls, a former junior college running back, hustled 5 yards to the 1, then scored from there on the next play. Willis' extra point made it 17-10.
Fourteen minutes remained. "There was definitely the feeling we could win it then," said Hunter. "Going from 17-3 to 17-10 is a whole different story."
But the Cats could go no further. Weirdness ran rampant, taking UK first up, then down.
"That fourth quarter was like a real roller coaster ride," said defensive back David Johnson.
Up: Tolbert returned an Auburn punt 40 yards to the Tiger 10. Down: The run was called back by a clipping penalty.
Up: Auburn's Freddy Weygand fumbled a Kentucky punt at the Tiger 8. Ray Gover caused it. Mark Sellers recovered it. Down: One play later, Auburn safety Greg Staples intercepted a Fohr floater intended for tight end Martin Pennington in the end zone. "I thought Martin was coming back and he went out," Fohr said.
Up: With 9:37 left, UK safety Ron Robinson recovered a Joseph fumble at the Auburn 30. Down: One play later, Cat tight end Mike Meece caught a short Fohr pass, was hit by safety Shan Morris and the ball popped into the air and into the arms of Tiger linebacker Alvin Mitchell.
From there, it was all downhill for Kentucky. Chris Tolbert fumbled a punt inside the UK 15 with six minutes left. The Kentucky defense held again. Dickinson kicked a 26-yard field goal for the final margin.
"It's a tough loss because we played so hard," Claiborne said. "At times, we didn't play well, but we did play hard."
To the point of exhaustion. Fohr suffered body cramps to such a degree he had to be helped in and out of the shower. "We had 'em on the ropes," he said a few minutes later, "but we couldn't knock them out."
Still, UK's punch was better than expected.
"There are not many weak sisters out there," said Dye. "Auburn folks found out that Kentucky was a lot better than they thought."