Mark Story

It sure seems UK fans are doomed to eternal torment by ‘the Rocky Top curse’

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Game day: Kentucky vs. Tennessee

Click below for more of Kentucky.com’s coverage of Saturday’s Kentucky-Tennessee football game at Kroger Field in Lexington.

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Down four points, Kentucky had the ball fourth-and-goal from the Tennessee 2-yard line. The Kroger Field clocks counted down to under 1:25 left in the game.

Yet with the Wildcats so near likely victory over the hated Volunteers, well-seasoned UK fans had to feel a familiar dread.

When Kentucky-Tennessee football games come down to the wire, torment all too often follows for the Big Blue.

With victory or defeat in the balance, Kentucky wideout-turned-quarterback Lynn Bowden took a shotgun snap and headed toward right end.

It was an option call.

From the press box, it appeared Bowden’s best bet was to pitch to running back Christopher Rodriguez and hope he could beat UT to the pylon.

But great players — and Bowden is every bit that — tend to bet on themselves.

The UK junior kept the ball and turned toward the goal line.

He never got there.

With Tennessee’s splendid linebacker Daniel Bituli leading the charge, Bowden was ridden down for no gain.

Exactly 1:17 later, Tennessee (5-5, 3-3 SEC) had a 17-13 victory over Kentucky (4-5, 2-5) before 56,760 chilled fans.

Now, the star-crossed history of agonizing UK football near-misses against the Rocky Toppers has another gut-wrenching chapter.

“Very, very difficult,” Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops said. “A tough pill to swallow.

“The Lynn Bowden Game” will take its place alongside “The Mark Higgs Game” and “The Lones Seiber Game” and “The Didn’t Give The Ball To Randall Cobb Game” in the mental haunted house that Kentucky football fans occupy.

I don’t believe in sports curses, but a lifetime of Kentucky-Tennessee football causes one to wonder.

There was 1987, when Kentucky, needing a touchdown to win, had first-and-goal from the UT 5.

The Wildcats gave the ball four straight times to their most dynamic player, Higgs.

On fourth down, Higgs was stopped inches short of the winning TD by UT nose guard Mike Whitehead.

In 2007, UK needed only make a 34-yard field goal in the second overtime to score its first win over UT in 23 years.

Kentucky kicker, Lones Seiber, a Knoxville product, was set up to be a UK football hero for all time.

UT’s Dan Williams broke through and blocked the kick.

Tennessee went on to win 52-50 in four OTs.

Two years later, UT was clinging to a late, three-point lead when Vols tight end Luke Stocker, a Kentucky product, fumbled the ball back to the Cats at the Tennessee 37 with 2:21 left.

Four straight runs from the Wildcat formation by Cobb, Kentucky’s star, moved the ball to the UT 10.

Inexplicably, however, Cobb did not touch the ball on second-and-7 from the 10 nor third-and-5 from the UT 8.

Kentucky settled for a tying field goal.

Tennessee won 30-24 in OT.

The 2019 edition of UK heartburn versus UT pretty much followed the 2009 script.

With Tennessee up 17-13, Volunteers running back Ty Chandler fumbled the ball back to Kentucky at the Vols 45-yard line with 7:44 left in the game.

With redshirt freshmen running backs Rodriguez and Kavosiey Smoke carrying the load, UK methodically marched the ball to a first-and-goal at the UT 6.

On first down, Rodriguez tried to run off right tackle, found nothing, and bounced it outside for 2 yards.

Bowden kept the ball on a read option on second down and ran left for 2 yards.

Following a Tennessee timeout, Jeremy Pruitt’s Vols, amazingly, were penalized for 12 men on the field.

Now Kentucky was 1 yard from victory.

On third down, Bowden lost a yard on a run to the right.

Down to one play, Kentucky now needed 2 yards to win.

The ghosts of so much UK late-game heartbreak vs. UT, not only 1987 and 2007 and 2009, but also 1973 and 1979 and 2001 and 2004 and 2006 hung in the air above Kroger Field.

In their guts, experienced Cats fans had to fear what was going to happen.

Running option right, Bowden didn’t pitch. He tried to turn it up into the end zone.

UT took him to the turf for no gain.

“I’ll never argue with Lynn taking it right there,” UK’s Stoops said. “We were riding with Lynn.”

On Saturday night, Kentucky led 13-0.

It ran for 302 yards against a defense allowing 137 yards a game.

It held the Volunteers under 300 yards total offense (296).

Yet it lost to the Rocky Toppers for the 33rd time in the past 35 years.

The psychology of sports is mysterious and complicated.

When Kentucky-Tennessee football games go to the wire, does the history of orange success and blue heartbreak somehow infuse the subconscious of both teams?

What we do know is that “The Lynn Bowden Game” ended up being the latest in the woulda, coulda, shoulda history of Kentucky losing football games to Tennessee that were right there to be won.

Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.
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