Date story was published: Sunday, November 3, 1985
"I'll tell you," Jerry Claiborne said after Kentucky beat East Tennessee State 23-13 yesterday, "the best thing about the game was that we won."
Maybe second and third best things, too.
Pretty, it wasn't. In fact, most of the action was as dreary as the weather.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
Unlike the gray gloom that engulfed Commonwealth Stadium, however, the clouds hovering over UK's football fortunes parted in the nick of time.
Bill Ransdell's return as a starting quarterback couldn't prevent a fitful offensive showing.
Kentucky's defense was given fits by East Tennessee's option offense. The Buccaneers amassed 306 rushing yards, including big plays from each major prong of their option offense. Quarterback Keith Harris ran 58 yards to set up the visitors' first touchdown. Fullback Herman Jacobs, who gained 121 yards, went 46 yards on a dive play to set up the second TD. In the first quarter, halfback Jerry Butler went 33 yards with an option pitchout.
"It wasn't that we were getting blocked," defensive end Steve Mazza said. "It was mental errors. When you have them, boom, it's 50 yards. We don't practice enough against it (the option offense). We're definitely better against the 'I' formation."
Even the person who estimates the attendance had a bad day. Sports information director Russell Rice's "estimate" of 53,429 seemed generous by several thousand.
It was that kind of day.
The Wildcats, snapping a two-game losing streak to improve their record to 5-3, needed a fourth-quarter rally to subdue East Tennessee State.
Never mind that ETSU hadn't won a game this season. (The Buccaneers left Lexington with an 0-7-1 record.)
Never mind that for three quarters Joey Worley's confidence continued to sail wide right.
Never mind that for three quarters UK never seemed to mind the possibility of losing.
On this afternoon, when it mattered most, Kentucky knew victory would come.
Said Worley, whose two second-quarter misses might have given UK some breathing room: "Deep down, I knew we could win."
Sure enough, with UK actually trailing (13-10) after three quarters, Worley came through. He kicked two field goals, the first (a 46-yarder) knotting the score at 13-13 with 13:33 remaining; the second (from 23 yards) clinching it with 4:19 to go.
While certainly welcome, Worley's field goals were only partially responsible for Claiborne saluting the Wildcats' kicking game. "They won it for us," the UK coach said.
As evidence, Claiborne cited:
David Johnson recovering a fumbled punt to set up Worley's first-quarter field goal.
Brian Williams returning punts for 99 yards.
Jay Tesar placing a punt inside the East Tennessee 5-yard line in the decisive fourth quarter.
Tailback Ivy Joe Hunter, a redshirt freshman who had carried only seven times for 9 yards this season, was another hero.
Hunter bulled for 58 yards in a quarter and a half of work. After Worley had tied the score with a 46-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter, Hunter put Kentucky ahead for good with an 8-yard touchdown run.
Maybe as importantly, Hunter's insertion into the game injected some life in UK.
"It was the most excitement all day," Claiborne said of Hunter's bullish runs. "He got people fired up. I was hoping for that."
Mike Ayers, the East Tennessee State coach, said his team needed a quarter before realizing it could beat Kentucky.
It then took UK the better part of three more quarters to squelch that hope.
For some on the Buccaneer side, that feeling did not die.
"We should have won," assistant coach Walt Bragg muttered as he headed for the team bus. "We should have won."
Kentucky started fast, driving 44 yards in a lickety-split six plays on its first possession. The easy touchdown came when East Tennessee went for a fake into the line and Ransdell rolled right and found tight end Mark Wheeler a good 10 yards behind the secondary. The 24-yard TD pass put Kentucky up 7-0 with 10:34 still remaining in the first quarter.
"We saw in the films the guy (the ETSU safety) would come up," Ransdell said.
But were the Wildcats lulled into a false sense of security by such an easy touchdown?
"I wouldn't say that," Ransdell said. "We just weren't ready to play. We were flat."
Still, UK increased its lead to 10-0 with 58 seconds left in the first quarter when Worley snapped a streak of six straight misses with a 43-yard field goal.
Butler's 7-yard touchdown run, set up by Harris' 58-yard option sprint, cut UK's halftime lead to 10-6. That margin would have been greater had Worley not missed from 44 and 38 yards in the half's final four minutes.
"I was puzzled again, wondering why this was happening," Worley said. "After I came off the field, the strength coach (Pat Etcheberry) told me what I was doing wrong. I learned a big lesson."
Etcheberry advised Worley to keep his kicking leg straight on the follow through rather than swing across his body, the kicker said.
Worley's fourth-quarter field goals were testament to the soundness of Etcheberry's tip.
Before Worley and Hunter could come through, UK had to wiggle free from a potential third-quarter disaster.
On the third play from scrimmage, Ransdell threw a pass to East Tennessee safety Charlie Benford. "Worst pass I've ever thrown," Ransdell said.
Benford returned the interception to the UK 14-yard line. On third down from the 10, however, Harris rolled right and tried to hit flanker Nicky Lynch in the right corner. UK's Tony Mayes stepped in front for the interception.
"It was the same pattern Tulane ran against me," Mayes said. "Only difference was they scored a two-point conversion on it."
All the Buccaneers got was a second-guess from their quarterback.
"My fault totally," Harris said of the interception. "They've got some big tackles and they were playing contain. I ran out and couldn't see anything except our wideout."
Kentucky got another break on East Tennessee's next possession. Set up by Mark Logan's fumble, the Bucs' Herbie Campbell saw his 43-yard field goal bounce off the right upright.
East Tennessee's third possession yielded points. Jacobs' 46-yard run advanced the ball to the UK 10. Three plays later, with the help of an offsides penalty against Kentucky, Butler scored from the 2. The touchdown put East Tennessee up 13-10 with 3:48 remaining in the third quarter.
The rest was all UK as the Cats scored on three of their next four possessions.