Date story was published: Sunday, November 8, 1987
NASHVILLE -- They came from everywhere, flying by on the option, sneaking past the secondary, a high-tech high-powered offense operating in overdrive. They were the Vanderbilt Commodores? Yes they were. And they couldn't be stopped.
Not yesterday. Forget about it. There went Eric Jones, rushing for 101 yards, throwing for 244 more. There went Carl Parker, catching eight passes for 169 yards, two for touchdowns. There went the Commodores, rolling up 521 total yards of offense, making short order of a defense even the Vandy coach had called "the best we'll face all year."
And there went, in all likelihood, Kentucky's bowl dreams.
Vanderbilt 38, Kentucky 29.
That was the story of yesterday's game at Vanderbilt Stadium. Powered by a Watson Brown offense built on smarts and surprise and every formation known to man, the Commodores shredded UK's defense on the way to Vandy's first SEC victory since beating UK in '85, a drought of 11 games.
"Today, we beat the best Kentucky team I've played," said Brown.
"We just could not stop them," said Jerry Claiborne, the Kentucky coach.
Nor could they match them. Mark Higgs rushed for 133 yards, moving to second on Kentucky's all-time rushing list. The Cats overcame a 28-16 deficit to take a 29-28 lead. But even after that, when the Kentucky defense finally held, a personal-foul penalty kept the Commodores on their way. And when Kentucky came close to answering, two critical mistakes -- an illegal procedure and a delay of game -- kept the Cats from the end zone, and victory.
Said Claiborne: "You just have to give Vanderbilt credit for playing a real fine football game."
And credit Jones with playing a great one. "A hell of a man," UK defensive back David Johnson called him, and when Jones wasn't burning the Cats with his keepers on the option, he was throwing for four scores. "I don't think he's the best quarterback," Claiborne said, "but for what he does for his team, I think he's the most valuable quarterback in the league."
Who could argue, what with Jones coolly directing a Vandy attack -- calling most of its plays at the line of scrimmage -- that was shocking in its efficiency against a UK defense that was eighth nationally in scoring (12.3 points) and 10th in total defense (261.6 total yards).
No more. Vandy turned the ball over only once -- an early interception that gave UK a 3-0 lead. It kept the football 39 minutes and 55 seconds and punted only three times. It had scoring marches of 91, 72, 80 and 72 yards.
Kentucky, with Kevin Dooley at quarterback, did lead 10-7, but when Vandy went up 14-10 -- Jones hitting Rodney Barrett for a 4-yard score -- the Cats couldn't keep pace.
Dooley fumbled. Vandy's David Wurm recovered at the UK 22. Four plays later, Jones threw TD No. 3, hitting Mark Johnson from 2 yards out. Vandy led 21-10.
Out went Dooley and in came Glenn Fohr, the junior college transfer who had started three UK games before riding the bench last week. He started this drive on Vandy's 22, thanks to Dee Smith, who went 75 yards on the kickoff return. Fohr did the rest. Not by air, but by ground, scrambling 13 yards for the score. The Vandy lead was 21-16 and there was still 6:38 before halftime.
But Vandy's Johnny Clark missed on a 51-yard field-goal attempt before the half, so it stayed 21-16 Commodores. Said Jones: " 'Coach just said, 'We're here. Don't lose it.' "
Instead, Vandy expanded it with a big play after a Kentucky big play had failed to yield points. In this game, that was a no-no. But after Higgs broke loose for a 46-yard run, his first big gain of the day, Joe Worley pushed a 35-yard field-goal attempt wide right.
Reborn, Vandy went fishing. UK safety Ron Robinson had been hobbled all year with a bad ankle. Mark Sellers had filled in. Only in yesterday's first quarter, Sellers tore a thigh muscle (out for the season). Robinson had to go the duration and in the third quarter Parker got behind him on the left sideline. Jones' pass was on the money. Parker was gone, a 74-yard strike. The lead was 28-16.
To its credit, Kentucky didn't wilt. In fact, the Cats put together their best offensive stretch of the game. Fohr made a clutch 15-yard scramble on a third-and-10, then hit tight end Martin Pennington -- one of only four Fohr completions in 19 attempts -- with a 46-yard scoring pass. Next, taking advantage of a short Vandy punt, the Cats marched 55 yards in five running plays. Higgs gained the first 25 on two carries. Ivy Joe Hunter did the rest, making runs of 4, 14 and 12, the last up the middle for a touchdown. Kentucky suddenly led 29-28 (the two-point conversion pass failed). There were 35 seconds left in the third quarter.
"We started running the ball really well once we realized we were in trouble," Fohr said. "We felt like if the defense could stop them and we could get the ball back, we could make a nice drive and run some time off the clock."
And the defense did, finally, halt the Commodores, limiting receiver Boo Mitchell to a 9-yard catch on a third-and-20. But the Cats didn't stop as the whistle blew and linebacker Chris Chenault continued driving Mitchell backward and backward and finally to the ground.
"I didn't hear the whistle," Chenault said. "If they did blow it, it was too early. He was still trying to go forward. I was damn surprised by the flag."
"No way that should have been a flag," said Jeff Kremer, UK's other linebacker. "I hit the guy and fell and Chris wrapped him up and they blew the whistle. But the guy was still running and then the flag went down."
And the Commodores had a first down at the Kentucky 35. Five plays later, Jones hit Parker with an 18-yard pass to the 1. Everett Crawford scored and Vandy was back in front 35-29. There was 11:38 left.
Plenty of time. Kentucky had plenty of firepower. Higgs churned 13 yards. Fohr hit Tim Jones for 10 yards. Higgs popped a 19-yarder and the Wildcats were at the Vandy 20.
But from there the visitors mired themselves in chaos. Higgs went 6 yards to the 14. Then Hunter burst up the middle untouched for what appeared to be his second touchdown. Appearances lied. The Cats were called for illegal procedure. "They said our guard moved," said Claiborne.
So it was second-and-nine. Hunter gained one to the 18. Then Fohr scrambled for 3 yards to the 15, setting up a fourth-and-five. Claiborne called time, then decided to go and the Cats lined up in the shotgun, Fohr barking signals, the Vandy crowd roaring, and the Kentucky fans who swarmed the end zone directly in front of their quarterback tried to match the Commodore noise.
One problem. Brad Myers, the Kentucky center, couldn't hear. "I couldn't hear a thing," he said. "So I just held on to the ball. I thought what I was doing was the right thing."
"I was screaming," Fohr said. "Our fullback was screaming. Then I tried to call time out."
He couldn't. A team can't call successive timeouts without time running off the game clock. A delay penalty was called. That made it fourth-and-10 and Fohr's pass over the middle went just off Jones' fingertips.
Why not a field goal? "Maybe if I had 45 minutes to think about it, I might have changed my mind," said Claiborne, a bit testily.
Instead, Vandy got a field goal. The Commodores took over with 7:25 left and they marched, slowly, methodically, eating up time -- Kentucky's time. Fourteen plays the Commodores ran, nearly seven minutes they kept the football, until finally, with 50 seconds left, Johnny Clark booted a 28-yard field goal and Vanderbilt was a 3-6 team.
And Kentucky was 5-4, a loser for the eighth straight time on the road, the ninth straight in SEC road games. A loser in a game most figured the Cats couldn't afford to lose.
"They didn't do anything we didn't expect," Claiborne said. "We just got blocked."
And Vandy, yes Vandy, could not be stopped.