Date story was published: Sunday, September 4, 1988
If you were Donald Duck or Dennis Conner or Mary T. Meagher, the 1988 football opener at Commonwealth Stadium yesterday would have been to your liking. If you were none of the above, you might have wished to be the Kentucky defense.
On the strength of their maritime defenders, the Wildcats defeated visiting and water-logged Central Michigan 18-7 in a setting that better resembled the start of monsoon season, not football season.
It rained yesterday. It rained long. It rained hard. For nearly three hours the heavens poured upon Cooper Drive, dumping an average of an inch an hour (3.06 total) on the proceedings, limiting the opening-day attendance to 41,736, the smallest crowd ever at a regular-season football game at Commonwealth Stadium.
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"We've played games in the rain," said Central Michigan coach Herb Deromedi, "but not when it was raining as hard as it was today."
The conditions were indeed horrible, the footing nearly non-existent. As could be imagined, mistakes were plentiful. Each team fumbled nine times -- all nine of the visitors coming on center snaps. There were three interceptions. The longest slosh was 13 yards; the longest pass 31.
But the difference was the UK defense. "In a game like this," said Wildcat linebacker Randy Holleran, "you know the big plays are going to decide it."
The Wildcats, including Holleran himself, made those plays. The sophomore recovered a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown. Defensive tackle Oliver Barnett dunked the poor Chippewa quarterback for a safety after he had mishandled a snap. Overall, the Cat defenders held the visitors to five first downs, 1.5 yards per offensive play and 78 yards total offense.
Throw in the hydroplane kick returns of Chris Tolbert (70 yards on six returns) and a UK offense that, if it did not light up the scoreboard, at least occupied the clock, and the umbrella-wielding crowd -- which couldn't have topped 20,000 the second half -- did not suffer in vain.
"We're really happy with the win, I can tell you that," said UK coach Jerry Claiborne. "It was hard out there. We made quite a few mistakes, but I think the defense was outstanding. Considering the weather and the way it was coming down, I thought we did a pretty good job."
Certainly the home team began swimmingly. Senior defensive end Jay Dortch picked off the Chippewas' second pass attempt, taking quarterback Randy Levels' throw at the UK 44-yard line. Kentucky quarterback Glenn Fohr promptly marched his Cats 53 yards to a first-and-goal at the Central Michigan three.
Only the offense could not score. Four running plays produced two yards. On fourth-and-goal, fullback Andy Murray was stopped at the middle of the line, bringing back memories of last year's finale (at the opposite end zone) when Tennessee stopped Mark Higgs on a fourth-and-goal near game's end.
No matter. Yesterday, the UK defense did score. First play, Levels fumbled the exchange, the ball squirting into the end zone. By the time he picked it up, Barnett was on top of him and UK led 2-0.
Tolbert, a sophomore defensive back, returned the ensuing free kick 24 yards and the Cats were in business again, taking over at the Chippewa 37. Nine plays later, from 4 yards out, Ivy Joe Hunter slid around the right side, stretching into the end zone, the ball popping out just after he had crossed the plane. Touchdown. Ken Willis' extra point made it 9-0, two plays into the second quarter.
The rout was not on, however. UK's third possession ended in disaster. Fohr threw between Murray and tight end Mike Meece. Central Michigan defensive back Durand Robertson snaked in and grabbed the first of his two interceptions. Fifty-nine yards later, Robertson was in the end zone and the Chippewas would trail by two points.
"To tell you the truth," Robertson said, "I couldn't tell where he was throwing it. I just stepped up and took off."
A mental lapse nearly cost the Cats the 9-7 lead. Punter Jeff Nelson, a senior, inexplicably took off on a fourth-and-14 from the Wildcat 35. He came up 5 yards short. "Was that faked punt planned?" a journalist asked Claiborne. The coach arched his brow. "We almost lost a kicker," he said.
But the Cats didn't lose the lead. The defense held. Then nearly midway through the third quarter, the Cat defenders put six points on the board.
Fohr had fired his second interception. Chuck Broughton had replaced him, without much success. But then Nelson (atoning for past sins) pinned the Chippewas with a punt that stopped at the visitors' 5-yard line.
Two plays later, CMU's backup quarterback Jeff Bender mishandled the snap. The ball squirted backward into the end zone. A pileup resulted. Up jumped Holleran with the football, and the touchdown.
"I didn't know I had it at first," Holleran said. "The ball squirted out from under somebody and I grabbed it. That's the first touchdown in my life. I wanted to keep the ball, but then I thought of Coach Claiborne saying, 'Gosh, almighty, we don't need those 15-yard penalties,' so I gave it to the ref. But I tell you I was pretty excited."
Willis, slipping and sliding, missed the extra point. But he made up for it the next drive. Senior linebacker Chris Chenault recovered yet another Chippewa fumble, this one at the 40. The drive stalled and Willis kicked a 38- yard field goal, making it 18-7 with 4:36 left in the quarter.
That completed the scoring. UK did have a couple of more golden opportunities in the fourth quarter. But Willis missed a 36-yard field-goal attempt. Finally, with less than two minutes left, on a second-and-goal from the one no less, Broughton and Hunter botched a handoff. Chippewa James Williams recovered the fumble.
"That was the worst thing we did," Claiborne said. "We had the ball at the one twice and didn't score. We didn't run the ball as well as we thought we would."
The Cats managed 103 yards on 48 carries, an average of 2.2 per crack. Fifteen times UK was tackled behind the line of scrimmage. The passing game wasn't much better. Two of Fohr's last eight passes were intercepted. Broughton completed seven of 10 passes, but for only 40 yards.
Yet, despite the rain, the Kentucky defense shined. Holleran had nine tackles. Barnett made three for losses. And CMU's only points were produced by their defense.
"We knew Kentucky had a solid defensive team," Deromedi said. "Then the weather helped them even more."
Injury report: defensive back David Johnson suffered a dislocated finger; fullback Murray a mild concussion. Offensive tackle Mike Nord suffered leg cramps. None of the three is serious, said UK trainer Al Green.