Date story was published: Sunday, October 25, 1987
ATHENS, Ga. -- They had it. Not for a minute or a quarter or even a half. For all but 68 seconds yesterday, the Kentucky Wildcats had it, a momentous upset within reach; a ride so high it made the end so low.
"This," said Coach Jerry Claiborne, his eyes windows of dejection, "was a tough, tough loss."
This was Kentucky leading the Georgia Bulldogs, a team it had not downed in a decade, by two touchdowns early, by 11 points at the half, by four points with six minutes left when the Wildcat defense stopped a 91-yard drive with a tremendous goal-line stand.
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And, ultimately, this was Kentucky losing yesterday at Sanford Stadium, 17-14, when the Cat offense failed in the clutch and Georgia's Lars Tate rambled 5 yards for the winning score with 1:08 seconds left, the Bulldogs' one and only lead of the game.
"It's been a long time," Claiborne said, "since a loss hurt that bad."
And no wonder. The Cats led 14-3 at the half. They had one touchdown and one near-touchdown called back by penalties. They bottled up Georgia's tailback tandem of Tate and freshman Rodney Hampton, only to let Hampton shake loose for a 50-yard, third-quarter run that put the Dawgs back in it.
And they did nearly everything right for nearly a half only to have the offense go sour the second half, producing just 33 yards and three first downs. "We just missed some passes that we hit in the first half," said Claiborne, "and we couldn't move the ball."
Thus, though they tried to the bitter end, the Cats could not hold an early, shocking 14-0 lead. A 40-yard, 10-play drive made it 7-0, with tailback Mark Higgs scoring from a yard out. Then UK hit the big play -- and a big break when tackle Mike Pfeifer's early movement wasn't spotted -- as wide receiver Dee Smith made a tumbling touchdown catch of Glenn Fohr's 41-yard bomb for a 14-0 lead.
Not 10 minutes had elapsed. "I saw it in their eyes," said UK tackle Greg Kunkel. "Georgia didn't want this game."
And UK did. The defense held the Bulldog offense to three points the first half, stuffing Tate, Georgia's top back, to 14 yards on eight carries, bothering quarterback James Jackson so much that he was benched after two first-half fumbles.
Meanwhile, Fohr was hitting 10 of 13 for 134 yards the first two quarters and the Cats were marching 70 yards in 12 plays -- plus a TD pass to tight end Charlie Darrington that was called back for holding -- toward a commanding 21-3 lead, when play 13 proved unlucky and Kentucky's engine stopped.
It was a flair pass to Higgs, a play the Cats had put in during the week. It had picked up yardage early in the game, but now it picked up coverage. It was second-and-6 from the Bulldog 9 with a 1:30 left, and as Higgs turned out toward the right sideline, the ball came in -- into the hands of Georgia rover back Will Jones. "A poor read," Fohr called it. "I threw to the wrong guy (open was tight end Charlie Darrington). It was my fault."
"But that didn't really bother us," Higgs said. "We still thought we could move the ball."
They couldn't. "We started playing Georgia defense," said Bulldog linebacker John Brantley, and the Cat offense got stuck in its own tracks. Fohr was two of nine with an interception the second half. Higgs, averaging 122 yards a game, had 32 yards on 10 carries as Ivy Joe Hunter, his ankle injured, was unable to play.
"That penalty on that pass to Jimmy O'Neal," Higgs said, "that really hurt us."
"I'll take the blame for that," said Claiborne.
The Cats were faced with a third-and-17 from their own 29 when the play came late to the huddle, the clock approaching zero when Fohr brought UK to the line of scrimmage. A Cat started in motion before the line was set. A flag dropped. And Fohr proceeded to hit O'Neal, a little-used but speedy senior, for a gain that carried all the way to the Georgia 3.
"That's seven or eight first downs right there," said center Brad Myers. "That's a touchdown."
A TD that would have carried the lead back to 11. After UK's Joe Worley missed wide right on a 50-yard field goal, Hampton shook loose, bolting down the right sideline for the same distance, to the UK 13. Quarterback Wayne Johnson, Jackson's replacement, went 13 yards for the score and it was 14-10 Kentucky with 6:07 left in the third quarter.
The momentum changed. Field position swung in the Bulldogs' direction. "I think we realized," said Georgia coach Vince Dooley, "that Kentucky had an awfully good football team."
Just not as good as Georgia's. And with just under three minutes left in the third period, the UK offense produced its last first down of the game, and set the pressure directly on the defense. "I thought we did a hell of a job," said cornerback David Johnson. "We were on the field the whole second half."
Twice in the second half, UK took over inside the Georgia 50 and failed to produce a first down. After the second time, the Cats downed a Jay Tesar punt on the Georgia 2. The Dogs promptly drove 91 yards in 14 plays -- a personal foul penalty on safety Mark Sellers helping the drive along -- to the UK 7, only to have the Wildcats rise up and stop Hampton for no gain on a fourth- and-one from the 7.
"Then we really needed a first down when we got the ball back," said Claiborne.
Instead, the Cats got more of the same: Higgs for no gain; Higgs for one yard; Dee Smith for six yards; Tesar punts and Georgia takes over on the Kentucky 49 with 4:26 left.
Four plays later, Johnson hit wideout John Thomas with a stop pattern -- "We were afraid they would stop-and-go," said Johnson -- for 15 yards to the UK 13. Four plays after that, Tate took a pitch left and turned the corner for the score.
The next series, Georgia's Rusty Beasley intercepted Fohr, closing the door on the Dawgs' sixth victory in eight tries this year, their third in four Southeastern Conference games.
"I'm proud of our team," said Claiborne, his squad now 4-3 and 1-2 in the SEC. "I thought we played well enough to win. But we didn't."
"We just dominated them," Kunkel said. "How we can lose is unreal."
But though they led for all but 9:52, the Cats did lose, for the 10th straight time to Georgia, for the 11th time in their last 15 conference games.
"This is the worst," said Higgs, who was held to 60 yards on 20 carries. "I'd rather get beat by a lot of touchdowns than lose like this."
"Three points might as well be 53," Myers said. "What's the difference?
"It's still a loss."