Date story was published: Sunday, September 21, 1986
You can call Kentucky's 37-12 beating of Kent State yesterday routine. Or workmanlike. Or even therapeutic, what with last week's disappointing 16-16 tie against Rutgers still lingering in the air.
But don't call it easy.
"It's never easy," said Mark Higgs, whose three first-half touchdowns made it appear that way. "I don't care if we're just practicing, it's never easy."
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UK, now 1-0-1, was ahead 9-0 barely four minutes into the game. The first seven points came on one of two Ivy Joe Hunter touchdowns. The latter two points came courtesy of Kent State on the ensuing kickoff. Return man Derrick Nix apparently caught the ball at the 1 and took a step back into the end zone before dropping to one knee.
The safety gave UK possession once more. A short (36-yard) free kick left the Wildcats only 57 yards from another touchdown. Higgs got it to make it 16-0 with 7:48 remaining in the first quarter.
"Obviously, I wish we could have started better," Kent State coach Glen Mason said. "What the heck do you expect me to say after we lose 37-12?"
A steadier start probably would not have changed the outcome. UK, which was enjoying the kind of superiority it usually must overcome against the likes of Louisiana State and Georgia, was too big, too strong and too talented for this Mid-American Conference opponent, now 1-2.
By halftime, Kentucky was 300 yards toward a second straight 400-yard-plus afternoon offensively and ahead 30-6 on the scoreboard. Coach Jerry Claiborne was already thinking ahead to next weekend's opponent: Cincinnati.
"In the first half we dominated," Claiborne said. "And we should have. We had bigger and stronger personnel. After that, I was trying to get our people better prepared for Cincinnati next week. After it got to 37-6 (with 9:57 remaining in the third quarter), we were able to use a lot of subs. That was the good thing. We got to play a lot of people and no one was seriously hurt."
Heralded freshman Al Baker saw his first action. The rookie from Cadiz entered the game with 11:45 remaining in the second quarter. He carried 12 times, gained 44 yards and gave the announced Commonwealth Stadium crowd of 54,865 a glimpse of what the future may hold. In the second quarter, Baker took a pitchout almost 15 yards, breaking several tackles throughout the run. However, a clipping penalty erased the gain.
The come-one-come-all strategy may have cost Higgs a chance to break two school records of World War I vintage. The UK record for touchdowns in a game is six, set by William Tuttle against Maryville in 1914. The mark for rushing touchdowns in a game is five, set by Jim Park that same year against Earlham.
Higgs carried only twice in the second half, gained 19 yards and retired to the bench with more than 25 minutes still to be played.
"We're a football team," Claiborne said. "We're not trying to publicize one player or get a record broken."
Higgs, who led UK's balanced running attack with 73 yards on 11 carries, acknowledged that the records had been mentioned at halftime.
"Coach Nord (running back coach Greg Nord) asked me what the record was," Higgs said. "If the game had stayed pretty close, I would have had a chance. But I was just thinking of making up for last week. I felt I let the team down."
Higgs had one of UK's two fumbles inside the Rutgers' 5-yard line in the mistake-filled season opener.
The only off-key note yesterday was Kent State's ability to pass the football underneath UK's coverage. Backup quarterback Tim Phillips completed 10 of 14 second-half passes for 113 yards. His last completion was an 8- yarder to split end Eric Dye that accounted for Kent State's second touchdown and allowed Dye to equal the school record of 10 catches in a game.
Asked if he were satisfied with the Wildcats' pass defense, Claiborne said: "Not really. But I'd wish you'd look at the catches they made. They were diving and leaping all over the place."
The Golden Flashes also exploited UK's tendency to concede the short pass in favor of protecting against anything deep.
"The coaches mentioned we had too much cushion," said sophomore defensive back Ron Mack, who had several passes completed in front of him. "I was doing my job. The first thing I want to do is backpedal so I won't be beaten deep. Then I want to make the best tackle I can (to jar the ball loose). Remember, the defensive backs are young. People talk about how young (redshirt freshman safety) Ron Robinson is. This is practically my first year, too."
UK, which expected to gain its first victory against Rutgers, seemed to be making up for lost time.
On the game's fourth play from scrimmage, defensive end Guy Neal jarred the ball loose from Kent State's starting quarterback, Pat Young. UK linebacker Larry Smith recovered at the Kent 39-yard line.
UK needed six running plays to score. Hunter ran on five of them, including a sweep around left end to score from 10 yards out.
Kentucky got the ball back when it was ruled that Nix stepped back into the end zone to down Joe Worley's kickoff.
"I don't know if that was a good play or not," Mason said. "I couldn't tell from my angle. At the time, I thought it was a bad call and told the officials that. Maybe I was wrong. If I was, I'll send them an apology."
Bill Ransdell, who completed 10 of 14 passes, hit three of three on the 57- yard drive after the safety. His passing enabled the Cats to overcome a holding penalty and get close. Higgs took it over from 8 yards out on another sweep to the left.
In the second quarter, Higgs capped drives of 64 and 94 yards by taking pitches around right end for touchdowns of 2 and 10 yards.
"We felt we could run the corners," Claiborne said. "That was in our game plan. As their defense started moving wider, we wanted to run up the middle."
So dominant was Kentucky it overcame major penalties on both second-quarter drives. A holding call backed up the Cats 10 yards on the first. UK overcame the clip that nullified Baker's effort on the second.
Against Kent State, those mistakes were merely annoying.
"I knew they had a good football team," Mason said of Kentucky. "If they hadn't made the mistakes last week, they would have blown Rutgers out."