Between 1960 and 1981, Kentucky and Notre Dame staged an annual New Year's Eve week matchup at Freedom Hall. To this day, many Big Blue fans fondly recall those games.
It wasn't surprising that coach Digger Phelps pulled the plug on that series, given the less-than-neutral setting. And with the annual rivalries UK has with Louisville and North Carolina (and hopefully Indiana again at some point), it's understandable why UK and ND don't play regularly. But as we prepare for the 61st all-time meeting between the Wildcats and the Fighting Irish on Thursday night in South Bend, it's a good time to reflect on the 10 most memorable games between them in my humble opinion.
1990: Notre Dame was looking for its third straight win over UK, something that had not happened since the early 1940s. In the final edition of the Big Four Classic, Kentucky put six players in double figures as Rick Pitino's second team rallied from two points down at halftime to win 98-90 at the Hooiser Dome. Richie Farmer's 19 points, including four 3s, led the way, offsetting the 21-point performance of ND's LaPhonso Ellis.
2003: For the first time in 11 meetings since 1988, Kentucky and Notre Dame entered this matchup at Rupp Arena with both of them ranked in the national polls. And the 16th-ranked Cats handily defeated the 10th-ranked Irish 88-73. Marquis Estill's 18 points paced four UK players in double figures, to counter the 29-point day for ND's Matt Carroll.
2010: Freedom Hall was the setting for this matchup for the first time since '88 and 17th-ranked UK handled the 23rd-ranked Irish with ease, 72-58, in the SEC-Big East Invitational. Terrence Jones poured in 27 points and grabbed 17 rebounds to help UK pull away from a 40-40 halftime tie.
1968: For the first time since 1958, both teams came into the game ranked in the nation's top 10 and the Cats won a shootout, 110-90. Dan Issel's 31 point, 14-round performance paced UK and Phil Argento added 27.
1981: A year after Notre Dame had upset the second-ranked Cats, coach Phelps drew the ire of the UK fans and coaches by holding the ball, to give his unranked Irish a chance to upset the number two Wildcats. Kentucky led 18-12 at halftime and the game went to overtime tied at 23. Kentucky finally pulled it out in overtime, 34-28, with Melvin Turpin being the only Wildcat in double figures with 11 points. ND's John Paxson led all scorers with 12.
1977: Kentucky's top-ranked team put its perfect record on the line against a fourth-ranked Notre Dame squad that would eventually join the Cats at the Final Four in St. Louis come March.The '78 champs were one of the best shooting teams ever at UK but they struggled with 42-percent field-goal shooting this night. Still, led by the 18 points apiece from Jack Givens and Kyle Macy, Kentucky prevailed, 73-68, thanks to 25-of-28 shooting at the free throw line.
1969: Until Jodie Meeks' 46 point-day against Appalachian State in 2008, the record for most points by a Wildcat in a game at Freedom Hall came out of this 1969 matchup. Mike Pratt made 16 of 26 from the field and was 10-10 at the line en route to a career-best 42 points. Issel added 35 in the 102-100 UK win. Austin Carr had 43 in a losing effort for the Irish.
1976: Some will tell you that Joe Hall's '77 team was as good as the one that would win the national title the next season and those Cats flashed that kind of quality in a 102-78 rout of the second-ranked Irish. Givens poured in 30 points on 15 of 19 shooting as UK raced to a 53-32 halftime lead and never looked back. This game came on the eve of Kentucky's first bowl game in 25 years and thousands of Cat fans gathered in a hotel room ballroom in Atlanta to cheer their Cats to this unexpectedly lopsided victory.
1978: NBC's Al McGuire proclaimed "a star is born" as freshman Dwight Anderson almost single-handedly rallied No. 13 UK to an 81-76 win over the second-ranked Irish in a top 10 matchup at Freedom Hall. Notre Dame's 2-3 zone had stymied the Cats in the second half until Hall put Anderson at the high post and let him use his quickness to break down the defense. "The Blur" scored 17 points as UK defeated an ND team that featured several future NBA players.
1970: In the rematch of that entertaining shootout from December, Issel out-gunned Carr as Kentucky scored a 109-99 win in the NCAA Tournament. Issel hit 17-of-28 shots on the way to a 44-point, 11-rebound performance while Carr poured in 52 points in defeat.
It was Dirty Harry who said, "A man's got to know his limitations." It was a cool line in the movie but when you're talking about a college basketball player, it's much better to have a player that doesn't know the limits of his potential. And veteran college basketball writer Mike DeCourcy sees that as a strength for UK freshman big man Nerlens Noel.
"He's not really polished in terms of finishing shots but he doesn't seem to care and that's what helps him," DeCourcy explained in an appearance on "The Leach Report" radio show on Monday. "He knows you're not as fast as he is and he's comfortable with the ball in his hands and he's going to get it up on the rim and hopes it goes in. And if he doesn't, he knows he's got a teammate that may get there before your guy does."
The book on Noel as a high school player was that he excelled at blocking shots - many said he's better at it than Anthony Davis - but that he might struggle with his offensive game. Through the five games we've seen Noel thus far, Noel is showing that may be able to bring more of an offensive game to the court than expected.
Noel's hands are soft and he catches most everything thrown his way. He's shown nifty passing skills and a willingness to share the ball as well. And he's just as comfortable going to his left hand as he is to the right. His field-goal percentage is under 50 right now, but that figures to change as he gets more comfortable in the post. And for now, DeCourcy says Noel can rely on his natural instincts.
"That confidence is what makes him dangerous. If he thought about it, he would struggle in the way that people worried that he would. (But) he just attacks and he figures you're going to have to clean up the mess," DeCourcy said.
"They (the UK coaches) did such great work over time with Anthony last year and he had so much skill and they were just bringing out different things. He was just a natural and was just learning how to apply that natural ability," DeCourcy continued. "As long as he (Noel) continues to attack, he's so big and so fast that's it really hard for defenses to keep him off the rim. That leads to fouls and he looks very comfortable at the free-throw line and he's going to get fouled a lot."
As for a judgment on the UK team as a whole, DeCourcy says he can't do that right now, because of the absence of projected starting point guard Ryan Harrow.
"You have players playing out of position right now. If you play Archie Goodwin at point guard, you have a guy at shooting guard that's probably - if you're going to be a top-level team - best at 18 minutes a game, maybe 20, in Julius Mays," DeCourcy said, adding he needs to see how good Harrow can be and how good Goodwin can be at his natural spot.
"I think the biggest problem with Archie at the point guard is that there's no Archie at the 2-guard," he added. "I saw Ryan practice with them and he looked really good. He finished plays, he made good decisions, he was very fast. I think there's a lot he can add to this team, if he plays."
How will Kyle Wiltjer handle an expanded role in his second season at UK? It didn't take long to get an answer to that one. Wiltjer scored 19 points, grabbed six rebounds and blocked three shots in the Cats' 72-69 win over Maryland - good enough to earn the sophomore forward recognition as SEC Player of the Week.
"I have done a lot of work this offseason, just working on my body, physically - quickness, strength - stuff like that and definitely honed in on my skills as well. You can't be too good at something so I just continue to work on my jump shot and playing out of that and getting able to play in the post which will be key this year, showing people that I am a really good post player as well," Wiltjer said earlier this fall.
Last year, Wiltjer was mostly a long-range shooting specialist but against Maryland, he showed his game is considerably more well rounded.
"The more I can do, it will make me harder to defend so, I am looking forward to this year to better my role, improve my game and show people what I can do. I am excited for this year," Wiltjer said.
If you listen to Mike Pratt on our UK radio network broadcasts, you often hear him talking about the importance of lower body strength to a big man's success in the lane. Coach Calipari had Wiltjer do offseason weightlifting sessions with the offensive and defensive linemen on the UK football team, to get him in the mindset of the kind of toughness he would need to compete in the paint as well as the perimeter. For Wiltjer, the training sessions were about building his lower body strength.
"Just a strong base. My legs. Leg strength is key. Just post up and be able to finish off the bumps against a stronger guy with more length. Just finishing over Nerlens has been a great way to practice," Wiltjer said. "We have had such great length the last few years and that has definitely made me a better player. It's a process. I need to continue to work on it and the more I work on it, the better I am going to be."
Even though he's only a sophomore, Wiltjer has logged more minutes at UK than any other Cat, which makes him a candidate to fill a leadership role. He says he's done that before and is willing to accept that challenge this winter. It's part of the attitude that's been passed down from his dad, a former professional player.
"Being professional even though you are a college player," Wiltjer said of his dad's advice. "Treat you body right, eat the right stuff, work with your coaches because they have our best interest even though it may be hard, keep pushing through it. He does a great job at keeping me humble and keep working on my game. They come in and look to experienced guys for where to go and stuff like that. I just kind of try to be there for them and anything they need I try to help them out."
As part of his plan to get ready for this season, Wiltjer worked out this summer with the Canadian national team and he hopes he'll be able to play in the 2016 Olympics.
"There were great workouts there, great coaches, we were able to work out twice in the morning. We went really hard and then at night, we went up against some of the best players. It was a great experience because it was the first time everyone had gotten together, all the talent and there are a lot of NBA guys up there and a lot of professional basketball players so, I was able to push myself to become a better player," explained Wiltjer, adding that his dad played for Canada's Olympic team and that motivates Kyle to do the same.
For now, Wiltjer is focused on helping Kentucky return to the Final Four and make a run at a second straight national title. But his message to his teammates is to avoid looking ahead.
"Staying in the moment," Wiltjer said of what he's telling them. "We knew we had a lot of potential but we took every game like it was going to be our last and continue to work hard even though we were a good team, we continued to rise and become a better team."
This year marks the first time since 2002 that Kentucky opens the season away from the friendly confines of Rupp Arena. And Friday's game in Brooklyn, vs. Maryland, is followed by a trip to Atlanta Tuesday night, to face Duke.
More than a few times in recent months, John Calipari has warned Big Blue fans that his fourth Kentucky team could start the season 0-2. ESPN's Andy Katz agrees with Coach Cal.
"Kentucky has more talent than both of those teams combined, but those teams will be more ready for an early-season game like this (because of experience)," Katz noted in a recent appearance on "The Leach Report" radio show.
Katz pointed out that Michigan State lost its first two games last season and still captured a share of the Big Ten title and gained a number one seed on Selection Sunday. And with games at Notre Dame and Louisville on the non-conference slate, Katz says UK could lose all four of those games and yet still make it to the Final Four.
Dortch on UK seeking a veteran presence
When Chris Dortch looks at the Kentucky team about to start a new college basketball season, his biggest question is not about the freshmen joining the program but about the veterans.
"Who's going to step up? I don't know that they would have won it all without Darius Miller."
The editor of the comprehensive Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook believes Kyle Wiltjer can answer that call.
"I think Kyle Wiltjer is a guy who can really step up his game," Dortch said. "I think he's got as versatile of an offensive game as you'll see in college basketball. It's going to be interesting to me to see if he can take it to the next level. I think he can."
UK, Maryland share big-game histories
Kentucky and Maryland were on the losing ends of what were arguably the two greatest games in college basketball history.
Cat fans know we're talking about the 1992 epic battle with Duke in the NCAA East Region final. For Maryland, that game came in the 1974 ACC Tournament title game, as North Carolina State beat the Terrapins 103-100 in overtime.
In '74, only the league champion made it to the NCAA Tourney field and that NC State-Maryland classic, many believe, provided the push the NCAA folks needed to expand the tournament and allow leagues to send more than one team - putting us on the road to today's version of March Madness. Cats, Terps both boast past top picks
Kentucky and Maryland are two of only 10 schools that can say they have had two players chosen first overall in the NBA draft.
At UK, both were recent - John Wall in 2010 and Anthony Davis earlier this summer. At Maryland, it was John Lucas in 1976 and Joe Smith in 1995.
It was hard to find positives in Kentucky's dismal gridiron showing last Saturday against Vanderbilt, but there was one. Unfortunately, it was a performance that was overshadowed by the coverage of the turnout and coach Joker Phillips' job security (and subsequent dismissal). But it was a performance deserving of some recognition.
Twenty tackles. That was junior linebacker Avery Williamson's total, along with a forced fumble. That was a career-best day for the junior linebacker from Milan, Tenn., and one of the best days in school history (the UK media guide lists the top five single-game tackling totals and the lowest is 24).
The number alone is impressive, but consider that it came on a day when the stadium was far less than half-full, the weather was awful and the Cats were getting thumped from the start.
Williamson's showing was the epitome of his coach's message to "be a pro" in the approach to the job of being a UK football player, student, ambassador, etc.
"It's just a thing you gotta decide to do, be a pro. Just keeping working hard, even when times are bad," Williamson told reporters after the game.
It's easy to play hard from start to finish when your team is winning and the crowd is cheering, but it was in these adverse circumstances that Williamson showed his character.
To him, it was all about doing his job.
"All you can do is keep playing for your teammates. I'm just trying to play for my seniors," he said.
Coaches will tell players that they can't pay attention to anything that happens off the field but Williamson acknowledged that the turnout - or lack thereof - was impossible to ignore.
"It was a shock but whether the crowd is there or not, you gotta keep playing," he said. "It's tough. But you still got to play. We want people to support but when we're not winning games, they're not going to come out as much."
Both Phillips and Williamson's high school coach have described him as a "self-made" player. What they're saying is that Williamson made himself into one of the SEC's leading tacklers despite not being a highly rated high school prospect. Milan High School played in back-to-back state 4A title games in Williamson's final two years. You could see he came out of a winning program and you could see the program won because of the work ethic of players like him.
It's the kind of mindset that Kentucky's next coach will be glad to find. And it's an approach that more players need to adopt, after the mistake-filled outing we saw last Saturday.
Williamson admits it's been anything but easy to endure this season, but he's also determined to stay strong.
"It's been stressful but that comes with the position I got, with everybody depending on you. All you can do is worry about your assignment," he said. "It's been very frustrating. I was expecting a lot (more) than this. But it's making me stronger and a lot of the (other) guys, too."
We get our first look at the UK women's basketball team against outside competition Monday night when the Wildcats play their only preseason game against Bellarmine. And expectations are at an all-time high for coach Matthew Mitchell's team.
Mitchell has praised senior Southeastern Conference player-of-the-year pick A'dia Mathis for her role in leading the transformation of this program into one of the nation's elite. But good coaches challenge even their best players to do more - and so it is for Mathies this season.
"The program has literally transformed during the time she's been on campus. (Yet) she's always struggled a little with her consistency in practice and with her ability to try to impact others in a leadership role. There's been times when she's had lapses so I think the final piece of the puzzle for her is to embrace her leadership role," Mitchell said on a recent edition of "The Leach Report" radio show. "Whether she likes it or not, people look up to her because of her incredible production. She's a very intelligent player and I just really want her to take a step forward in a leadership department because I think it will have a powerful impact on our team and think it'll make a big impact on the outcome of this season."
And this could be a breakout year for Samarie Walker. She came highly touted as a transfer from UConn but was not able to consistently play at her peak level in her first season at UK. Nevertheless, she showed enough to lead the coaches to pick her for second-team preseason All-SEC.
"Samarie looks a lot better offensively," noted Mitchell. "I think last year you didn't see her at her best offensively. She looks much more comfortable, much more confident and much more aggressive."
There's only one freshman on the UK roster this season, but Mitchell is expecting big things from point guard Janee Thompson.
"Man, is she talented offensively. She's very gifted - great ball handling, great scoring ability and can shoot the ball. She's taking some time to get up to speed defensively but I'm not overly concerned about that (because it's early)." Malone on Noel's progress
UK walk-on Sam Malone and freshman star Nerlens Noel are both alumni of New England's Tilton High School and that naturally led to an early connection between the two.
Malone knows comparisons between Noel and Anthony Davis are inevitable but he says fans need to remember that the Davis that finished last season was a much different player than the one who started it. And Malone believes Noel will handle all the attention just fine.
"He is definitely comfortable in his own skin and when Anthony first came in, he was a project. He was nowhere close to where he is now and it's the same thing with Nerlens. He is a project," Malone said, "but he has the potential and I think he is willing to work hard enough to develop that.
"We didn't know each other before. I went to Tilton and he went to Tilton a few years after me. We weren't there at the same time. We played for the same AAU team but not at the same time but we have a ton of mutual friends in Boston," Malone added. "I hung out with him a bunch this summer." Football Cats looking to shake off fumble-prone performance
Fumbles were a big issue for the Kentucky football in its loss at Missouri last Saturday but an odd statistical quirk bodes well for the Cats this week, since they play Vandy in Commonwealth Stadium.
Kentucky has a stretch of eight consecutive home games without losing a fumble, dating back to last year's game against Jacksonville State.
Time of possession a key for SEC squads
Of the top seven teams in the SEC in the time-of-possession stat, six have winning records and are nationally ranked. The only one that isn't ranked is Vandy, which is number five in TOP, and the Commodores are 4-4 and in the hunt for a bowl.
Kentucky ranks last in time-of-possession and of the league's bottom seven teams in that TOP stat, only two - Texas A&M and Ole Miss - have winning records.
"Not many guys get to experience being one of the brand new guys and be a veteran guy being looked at as one of the leaders. I've enjoyed every minute of it. I enjoy being a (veteran) but also a guy who is learning every day like everyone else."
That is the unique dual role that Wright State transfer Julius Mays is playing in his only season at UK.
Mays had other options that might have assured him of more minutes and opportunities for points but he also knew the best path to getting a championship ring was to take the tougher road of competing for playing time on a national title contender at Kentucky.
"I haven't been worked this hard since I've been in college. I feel like I've been pushed like I've never been pushed before and I've liked every minute of it," Mays said at media day.
"I had a lot of offers and opportunities to go places and be a starter immediately or have a greater role coming in and be a scorer but from my decision, I wanted to be able to compete with the best of the best and have the best chance to win and I feel that Kentucky gave me the best opportunity to do that," Mays noted.
We'll get our first look at Mays and his teammates against outside competition this Thursday night, when the Cats play their first preseason game.
Mays is embracing coach Calipari's mantra that nothing is guaranteed for any player on this team.
"(He said) 'You have the same opportunity as everyone else who steps on this court,' and I really like that when he told me that. If it's not starting and it's coming off the bench, I am fine with that and I just want to be able to compete, help my team out and have a chance to win," said Mays.
In his media interviews, Mays comes off as unassuming and classy, but there is clearly a quiet confidence there as well, such as when he was asked about the difficulty of scoring around the basket against the likes of Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein.
"When I first got here, it was more difficult but the guys will tell you I find ways to get it over them," Mays said with a smile. "I'm not the most athletic guy but I've always known how to put the ball in the hoop ever since I was younger. I shoot the ball well but I also score the ball well. And when that brings attention to me, Coach Cal says I won't have to worry about being double-teamed."
The book on Mays is that he brings a keen shooting eye from the perimeter but Mays says that is something that he has developed over time, with lots of hard work.
"You cannot just snap your fingers, come in the gym and become a shooter. It's developed over time. When I was younger, I couldn't really shoot the ball, I was more of a driver, but as you stop growing and might not be as athletic as another guy, you have to pick up something else that you do really well, and that is when you start being able to shoot the ball really well," Mays explained. "It's a lot of repetitions. Not being a guy that changes the shot all the time, but just coming into the gym and shooting the same shot every time, just starting out slow and speeding it up."
Mays says the UK coaches have not made many tweaks to his shooting form but they have worked with him on getting better at coming off screens and scoring against the more athletic defenders that he's likely to see more often, playing for a team like Kentucky.
"Shooting guard" is the label that goes on Mays but he says he's not a one-trick pony.
"I really define myself as a combo guard. I am not a point guard, I am not strictly a two-guard. I feel that I can play both," he said. "If it's distributing the ball, I can do that. If I am needed to score, I can do that. My ability to shoot the ball, I feel that I can stretch defenses out."
Mays has competed against enough big-name schools that he knew what to expect in terms of facing a greater on-court challenge when he came to Kentucky. But what he didn't know as much about was the passion of the Wildcat fan base.
"I feel like, until you live it, then you don't know anything about it. Obviously I heard about how crazy the fans would be but until you experience it and live it...I have never seen anything like it," he acknowledged, adding that he is quite comfortable with it, too. "I am a people person and I love seeing people smile and if me taking a picture or signing an autograph (makes that happen), I am all about it."
With young quarterbacks, coaches stress the importance of avoiding negative plays, to start out of second-down-and-long or third-and-long situations. That will be an especially tough challenge for the Cats this Saturday at Missouri.
The Tigers rank third in the SEC with 59 tackles-for-loss - that's 27 more than Kentucky has in one less game.
One positive trend for the Cats is that they have not turned the ball over since the fourth quarter of the South Carolina game. And Kentucky has only lost two fumbles all season, both against Louisville in the season opener.
And both UK and Mizzou are having trouble hitting big plays. The Tigers and the Wildcats rank 13th and 14th respectively in yards-per-pass attempt this season.
Former Cat Van Note relates to 2012 struggles
Staying focused on your job, ignoring distractions, keeping a positive attitude. Those are the things coaches talk to their players about when a season doesn't go as well as they hoped it would. Former Wildcat and NFL star Jeff Van Note knows all too well what it takes to stay true to those things.
In three seasons of varsity football (1966-68), "Note" played on a teams that won a combined eight games. But it did not deter him from improving as a player and eventually earning a paycheck in the NFL for almost two decades.
"You do all the things to prepare to win and when you don't, there's a huge letdown. Back when I was in college, there were two papers and the coverage was minimal and it wasn't talked about day in and day out and your coach's job wasn't in question on talk shows (and the like)," Van Note said in a recent appearance on "The Leach Report" radio show.
"This is a young football team so they'll have to lean heavily on their leadership. They need their seniors to stand up and make them realize that this is a week-by-week grind. The 24-hour rule comes into effect - whether you win or lose, you get past that game," added Van Note, a member of the UK Athletics Hall of Fame. "You have to be mentally tough. More than anything I learned in college was how to mentally tough. The mental toughness is so very important, to block out that outside influence."
How does one learn mental toughness?
"It's a combination of things. What are you there for? What am I doing with my life at this time? Life is nothing but overcoming a series of obstacles, in every walk of life. 'People are down on us, they don't believe in us. Do I believe enough in myself and my teammates to prepare myself mentally and physically to be the best I can be?' " he explained. "You get better or you get worse every day of your life. I always wanted to improve and the right kind of coaches teach people how to get better. Winning is habit-forming and so is losing."
DeCourcy on Harrow, UK
Like the previous three, John Calipari's fourth Kentucky basketball team is blessed with an abundance of talent. But any squad, especially a young one, comes into a new season with some question marks.
For veteran college basketball writer Mike DeCourcy of sportingnews.com, they start at the point guard position.
"My first question is Ryan Harrow. I think he's a talent and I think that playing under Cal will help him. Cal finds a way to make his players succeed and he's willing to change until he finds that level of success. I think he'll be fine but how fine does he need to be? That's what we don't know. It depends on how good (others are)," said DeCourcy, adding that the one player he has the fewest questions about is Kyle Wiltjer.
Conventional wisdom about college basketball pundits is that this is a more wide-open year, with less strength at the top than last year. Does DeCourcy agree?
"I don't think that the level of players entering college basketball this year rises to that level (of seasons like last year). We don't have a lot of veterans who have hung around. You look at most preseason All-America teams and there's a lack of proven talent," he said, noting that is why he expects more unpredictable results.
Long talk about Harrow stepping in at the point
Brian Long doesn't have any questions about Harrow at the point guard spot. Long has seen him in practice for more than a year now and he's convinced the NC State transfer will do just fine.
"It will definitely help him in the long run because I feel like being the point guard in Coach Cal's system is the hardest thing to do," Long said of Harrow's opportunity to go through a season of Calipari's practices at UK. "Watching Marquis (Teague) from the beginning of the year, he struggled and then we couldn't have won in the end without him. So, for Ryan to have a year under his belt should help him a lot. Still, it will be difficult, have a new group of guys and a lot of factors but it should help him a lot."
Why is the point guard spot so difficult to master?
"Because you have to control, know when to let go, when to pull back," Long observed. "You have to control everybody. The ball is in your hands 80 percent of the time probably. So you just have more decisions to make than anyone else."
For whatever reasons, Kentucky usually plays Georgia tough in football. After last Saturday, five of the past seven matchups have been decided by 10 points or fewer. But this year marks the 35th anniversary season during which the Wildcats demolished the Bulldogs 33-0 in Athens. It was arguably the signature performance of a memorable 10-1 campaign that saw UK finish the year ranked in sixth in the final Associated Press media poll.
When you see the way Alabama's defense dominates SEC foes nowadays, it's fun for a Big Blue fan to reflect on a unit led by All-American Art Still that was just as dominant.
Only two teams during that 1977 season scored 20 points on Kentucky. One was the Baylor team that beat the Cats 21-6 on a sultry Saturday on the artificial turf in Waco, Texas. The other was Penn State. The Nittany Lions jumped out to a 10-0 lead but a Dallas Owens interception return for a touchdown sparked a UK rally that saw Kentucky storm back to win 24-20 in what turned out to be the only loss that year for Joe Paterno's squad.
For Kentucky, the ascent to the top of the Southeastern Conference had its genesis in a 2-8-1 season in 1975, according to quarterback Derrick Ramsey.
"I remember the year in 1975 when we were 2-8-1 and I knew we would be a great team the following year," recalled Ramsey, now the athletics director at Coppin State. "People say 'How did you know that?' and I think that if you go back to seven of the eight games that we lost and we lost them by a total of less than 20 points. I knew who was starting that next year and we were all sophomores and so we all matured."
It wasn't like the transformation was instantaneous though. A year before that 33-point rout of Georgia, the Cats lost 31-7 at home to the Bulldogs. Then, UK went to Maryland and dropped a regionally televised matchup 24-14 to fall to 4-4. Fourth-year coach Fran Curci's first two teams just missed bowl games by one win but after that two-win season in '75, the middling performance through the first eight games of '76 had UK fans grumbling. But Ramsey, Still and company answered the challenge.
Kentucky finished the season with three straight wins, as that defense that would become dominant in '77 started to grow up. In the '76 finale, UK shut out Tennessee 7-0 in Knoxville to earn Kentucky's first bowl bid in 25 years.
Coming off the Peach Bowl win over North Carolina, the Cats' prospects were bright but the '77 campaign began with a hard-fought 10-7 win over the UNC program that Kentucky had defeated just months prior. Then came to the trip to Baylor, where UK lost not only the game but Peach Bowl MVP Rod Stewart to a knee injury.
History, however, shows that the Wildcats soon asserted themselves as a dominant gridiron force, with a suffocating defense and a power-oriented offense directed by Ramsey, who would transform to a tight end in the NFL.
Ramsey recalls his team as one with strong leaders who were determined to change the culture of football at Kentucky.
"When we first got to Kentucky, people all asked, 'Why did you come to Kentucky? It was a basketball school.' And I think that I knew I won three straight state championships in football and I wasn't concerned about being a basketball school. I was concerned about getting there and making things happen with some like-minded guys that won at their high school, that weren't aware that Kentucky was meant to be (only) a basketball school," said Ramsey. "We thought it was a winning school and when everyone comes in with that mindset, (good things happen).
"I think that for any team to be successful, someone has to be a leader and make decisions because there are times where everyone is looking around to see who is going to do what. On the offensive side, that was always my job and I made damn sure that I knew what we were going to do," Ramsey said. "And once they believed that you going to make things happen, even when the greatest odds are against you, you have a greater tendency to perform. On the other side (defense) was Art and Jerry (Blanton) and Dallas in the secondary. We had a plethora of guys that could make things happen for our team."
"Coach (Mike) Cassity said 'you're going to have a chance to play early,' but I didn't expect to start."
Cody Quinn made his first start at Florida and made a strong first impression. He's done nothing but improve ever since, challenging receivers and playing strong against the run. The Middletown, Ohio native is one of the fastest players on the team but he says he learned quickly that speed alone would not make him successful.
"Technique is very important. In high school, I could get away with stuff with my speed. At this level, everybody is just as fast and they're bigger and stronger," said Quinn.
The rookie carries himself with an air of confidence and he says that comes from the games in which he played as a youngster.
"Playing with older guys. Since I was little, I played with older guys and felt like I had something to prove," Quinn said. "Little man syndrome, I guess." Woodyard, Tamme returning to Lexington during bye week
It's Homecoming weekend at the University of Kentucky and two members of the Denver Broncos are using the open date on their NFL schedule to return to their alma mater.
Wesley Woodyard and Jacob Tamme will be at Keeneland for an autograph signing today as part of the track's See Blue Day and then they will attend the Georgia-UK game tomorrow.
When I talked to Woodyard earlier this summer, he said Lexington is always going to be special to him.
"This is where I became who Wesley Woodyard is, where I became a man, and the memories me and my teammates put together," he said.
Woodyard and Keenan Burton are good friends but their practice battles were legendary for their intensity in leading the defense and offense respectively.
"To me, that's where the game starts, on the practice field. There would be days where me and Keenan would go at it," Woodyard explained, "and people would say 'how can you guys be best friends?' To me, that's the competitive atmosphere that made us who we were."
Georgia a big-play test
When it comes to big plays, Georgia's offense is among the best in the SEC. The Dogs have a league-high 45 plays that have gained 20 or more yards. Kentucky ranks last in that category, with 20 such plays.
Many of those big plays have come when Georgia QB Aaron Murray throws on first down. He's completing 74 percent of his first-down throws (according to cfbstats.com) and off his 55 completions, 31 have resulted in first downs for the Bulldogs.
Reflecting on the first doubleheader with Keeneland
Did you know Georgia was the opponent for Kentucky's first October night game and thus, the first-ever UK football-Keeneland doubleheader? The year was 1949 and the Cats pounded Georgia 25-0.