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UTAH STATE IS VICTIM OF BARRAGE OF BIG PLAYS

Date story was published: Sunday, September 13, 1987

Let's see. There were long passes and a longer punt return and a near coast-to-coast run. There was an amazing halftime score and an astounding point total, as in zero. And, oh yes, an early shower.

And who knows what all else happened yesterday at Commonwealth Stadium as the Kentucky Wildcats celebrated the opening of their 1987 football season with, well, a celebration.

"I had a sense we were gonna have fun," said defensive tackle Jerry Reese. "But I didn't know we were gonna have this much fun."

Fun? This was four quarters of near glee. This was Mark Higgs rushing for 158 yards on 11 carries, including an 85-yard, flash-from-the-past touchdown run. This was Dee Smith scoring on a 64-yard punt return. This was Joe Worley becoming the school's career scoring leader. This was 530 yards of total offense -- with zero turnovers -- and a defense that recorded five sacks, intercepted two passes and never allowed the visitors inside the UK 46-yard line.

This was Kentucky 41, Utah State 0.

"This," said linebacker Jeff Kremer, "is the way the game is supposed to be played."

Just as this was the way the Wildcats, well aware of past openers that led to empty endings, wanted to win yesterday. History told them so. In '84, they opened with a 42-0 win over Kent State and went 9-3. In '85, they were stung by Bowling Green and wound up 5-6. Last year they let Rutgers escape with a tie and finished 5-5-1.

"We knew (yesterday) was gonna set the tempo for the rest of the season," said defensive back David Johnson.

"Our goal was to win the opener," said offensive tackle Mike Pfeifer. "That was the first goal we set in the first meeting we had."

They added others: more big plays, fewer mistakes, hard work brings good luck. They even got an emotional boost Monday when the team finally moved into the new $6 million E.J. Nutter Training Facility. "The new feeling in the new building," Kremer called it.

Yet the feeling in yesterday's locker room was decidedly different. "Everybody," said Johnson, "was kind of low-key, kind of mellow and just really thinking about what they had to do. And we went out there and did it."

Nearly from the coin toss. Second play: Kevin Dooley, the senior quarterback, hit Smith, the fleet wide receiver, for a 50-yard gain. That's 17 yards longer than any quarterback-to-wideout connection last season. The Cats failed to score, but the stage was set. "That really calmed me down," said Dooley, making just his fourth career start. "I started thinking this isn't that hard."

Then Higgs took off. Starting at the 15, he broke up the middle, veered to the right sideline and kicked past the remaining defender inside the final 10 to better his 84-yard touchdown run as a freshman, put the Cats up 7-0 and startle the crowd of 55,279 into a frenzy.

"That was a tremendous blow to us," said Utah State coach Chuck Shelton. "We didn't make anything big happen, and they did."

"But I've seen it too many times where you get a good buster right at the beginning and the balloon pops," said Pfeifer. "So you just have to keep your mind honed in and decide, hey, that's one, let's get another one and keep on going."

The Cats kept going, marching 69 yards in 10 plays to go up 14-0. The key was a 21-yard Dooley pass to tight end Charlie Darrington that took the ball to the 28. Higgs carried to the 17, then to the 6, where Dee Smith, on the business end of a full-house backfield, got his first score.

Twenty seconds into the second quarter, Smith got No. 2. Taking an Aggie punt on his own 36, the sophomore swooped left, moved to the middle and churned home for UK's first touchdown off a punt return since Brian Williams' 57-yarder in 1985. "I caught it and I looked up and they were setting the wall up," said Smith. "I just took the ball and did the best I could do with it."

Worley's point-after-touchdown made it 21-0 and made the senior the school's all-time scoring leader. Worley kicked two field goals and five extra points in the game, bringing his career total to 189, passing Bob Davis' 180 points for 1935-37.

Another 69-yard march and it was 28-zip. Two big plays again kept the Cats driving, Dooley hitting Tim Jones for 30 yards, then Darrington for 24. Higgs rumbled in from the 13 and the lead was four touchdowns.

And counting. Suddenly, the defense wanted in on the act. Tackle Oliver Barnett, a close companion of Aggie quarterback Brent Snyder most of the day, this time stayed back, got his hands on a Snyder pass and snatched his own deflection at the Utah State 20. First play, Ivy Joe Hunter followed the right sideline to the end zone and it was 35-0 Kentucky with 4:41 to go in the first half.

"I thought the first half we played very, very well," said Coach Jerry Claiborne. "We probably had more big plays in the first half than we've had in two years."

The touchdowns stopped there, however, the Wildcats managing only a pair of Worley fourth-quarter field goals, the first from 42 yards, the second from 31. "I just did a poor job of getting our intensity up," said Claiborne.

Others credited Utah State, 56-12 losers to Nebraska last Saturday. "They're not idiots," said Pfeifer. "We were ripping 'em the first half and ripping 'em pretty good. I think the intensity was still there, their defensive adjustments just threw us off a little bit."

But the Aggie offense could do nothing against the Kentucky defense. "Basically, our kids got handled again just like in the Nebraska game," said Shelton.

Shelton's club managed just nine first downs, 22 yards rushing -- an improvement over the -1 the Aggies had against the Huskers -- and failed to convert a single third down all day as UK got its third shutout under Claiborne.

"That was the second thing we wanted," said Kremer. "The first was a win."

And Claiborne got an impromptu shower. A trio of mischievous Cats, led by Oliver Barnett, doused their head man with some liquid refreshment on the sideline after the game. "I almost had a heart attack," said the coach. "But I'll take one of those every week."

Then again, this was just one week and one week only. Utah State was 3-8 a year ago, now 0-2 this season. And next comes Indiana, a bowl team last year, a 35-13 winner over Rice yesterday. "Indiana's gonna be good," said Jerry Reese.

But yesterday, Kentucky was good enough to celebrate.

"If this is any indication on the season," said Reese, "we're gonna have a great one."

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