Tuesday afternoon the University of Kentucky announced the 2020 football team’s season opener against Eastern Michigan has moved from Saturday to Thursday, Sept. 3. The change was made to avoid a conflict with the postponed Kentucky Derby. One positive side effect is that now Kentucky will receive the SEC Network spotlight to open college football season.
Over the years Thursday nights have not been kind to the Wildcats. Kentucky is just 2-6 since they began playing in the made-for-TV events in primetime almost 30 years ago. After starting with a win, it’s been all downhill since.
1993: Kentucky 21, South Carolina 17
The Wildcats made their Thursday Night Football debut at Williams Brice Stadium against the South Carolina Gamecocks. Just a few weeks after Chris Doering’s catch extended the losing streak against Florida, the Wildcats were on their heels in Columbia
Trailing in the fourth quarter, quarterback Antonio O’Ferral mounted a 13-play, 81-yard scoring drive to to take the lead for good with just over five minutes to play in the fourth quarter. Steve Taneyhill’s mullet could not rally a comeback for the Gamecocks. The victory would help propel the Cats to the Peach Bowl to conclude the 1993 season.
The entire broadcast is actually available to watch online. Come for incredible Taneyhill introduction montage, stay for the Power K’s and triple option attack.
1994: #9 Auburn 41, Kentucky 14
The Cats frankly did not stand a chance on The Plains against Terry Bowden’s Tigers. The year prior Auburn went undefeated, but NCAA sanctions banned them from the postseason. Playing with a chip on their shoulders, Auburn extended their winning streak to 16 games by steamrolling the Cats. The streak made it all the way to 20 before they tied with Georgia and lost to Alabama in the Iron Bowl to end the season. Ties in college football? What a bizarre concept.
1999: #8 Mississippi State 23, Kentucky 22
Starkville has never been kind to the Kentucky Wildcats. Dusty Bonner helped UK build up a double-digit lead, but it still wasn’t enough to escape that hell-house with a win. Kicker Scott Westerfield missed a chance for the Bulldogs to take the lead with about five minutes to play. Unfortunately for Hall Mumme’s squad, he got another chance at redemption.
Trailing by two points with 90 seconds to play, Miss. State marched down the field to give Westerfield one more shot. The placekicker buried the 45-yarder to move State to 8-0 on the season, their best start in school history.
2003: South Carolina 27, Kentucky 21
Kentucky almost escaped Columbia with a win even without Jared Lorenzen. The senior quarterback was knocked out of the game with a concussion in the third quarter as UK trailed 27-7. Lexington native Shane Boyd entered the game wearing his superhero cape. Boyd threw a touchdown to Chris Bernard on a fourth-and-seven, then five minutes later escaped the pocket and rushed for a touchdown to put the Cats within one score. Unfortunately, with 16 seconds remaining he could not connect with Derek Abney on fourth down to keep UK’s hopes alive.
2007: #11 South Carolina 38, #8 Kentucky 23
Kentucky’s exciting 2007 featured three separate “I can’t believe they lost it” games. The 4OT season finale loss to Tennessee was the most painful. The Miss. State loss made the least sense. The South Carolina game was one enormous mistake after another.
The Wildcats were ranked eighth, still the highest mark in my lifetime, entering the most difficult stretch of the season. A win in Columbia could catapult them into the top five and bring College GameDay to campus ahead of a matchup with top-ranked LSU. A date with Florida loomed the following week. Kentucky had the offensive firepower to take down Steve Spurrier’s squad, but nothing went right that night at Williams Brice.
Andre Woodson was praised for his ability to take care of the ball. At one point in his career he held the record for most consecutive passes without an interception. He threw an interception at South Carolina and had the ball taken from him twice as he dropped back to pass. The Wildcats committed four turnovers and Eric Norwood turned two of them into touchdowns. You can’t give up two defensive touchdowns and expect to win a football game.
What made the loss even worse? Chris Smelley was South Carolina’s quarterback. How do you lose to a guy named Smelley?
2011: Kentucky 14, Western Kentucky 3
The sloppy offensive performance in 2007 was the Mona Lisa compared to what the Wildcats did in Nashville to open the 2011 season. Kentucky’s 14-3 win over WKU is without a doubt the worst win in the more than 100-year history of Kentucky football.
This game featured more great viral Twitter moments than plays, and Twitter wasn’t even really a “thing” at the time. Morgan Newton threw three interceptions and sacked himself while dropping back to pass, inspiring Hilltopper linebacker Andrew Jackson to say “They ‘Spose’d to be SEC.”
Luckily, Western Kentucky was only entering its second season of FBS football and quarterback Kawaun Jakes outdid Newton by throwing four interceptions. Despite the defense’s best efforts, gloom and doom loomed as Joker Phillips’ offense went 3-for-13 on third down and produced just 190 yards of offense against WKU. It was a sign of what was to come as Phillips won only six more games over the next two years before he was terminated.
2013: Mississippi State 28, Kentucky 22
This was the Thursday night where the Big Blue Nation learned what it looked like when Mark Stoops was mad. He brought tempered expectations into his first season in Lexington, but after a quick nine-point scoring flurry by Kentucky, Dan Mullen’s team was on its heels. Trailing by just two, Stoops snuck in an unexpected onside kick that worked to perfection. The stripes in Starkville said it was too good to be true, whistling the Wildcats for offsides.
Kentucky’s one opportunity to strike and upset Dad Prescott and Co. was gone. Stoops preceded to lose his mind. MY search to find film of Stoops “making his case” to officials was fruitless, but let’s just say it was one for the ages. Even though Kentucky gave up a Bulldog score on a trick play on the following possession, the Cats hung in there tough, a sign of good things to come.
2015: Auburn 30, Kentucky 27
The last Thursday Night Football game in Lexington was arguably the most excited the football fanbase had been since College GameDay was in Lexington almost a decade prior. The tailgate lots began filling up at noon. KSR was on the airwaves from 10 am until kickoff in primetime on ESPN. Even after the gator carrying the radio equipment crashed, someone put it on the back of a flatbed and the crew rode around the parking lot on-air. It was a wildly eventful day.
As you can see thus far, Thursday nights typically end in disappointment for the Wildcats. Kentucky kept it close but never once took the lead. UK was within three points for almost the entire fourth quarter, yet could never get over the hump. Patrick Towles had one last chance to retake the lead or tie, starting the final drive at the 15-yard line with just over two minutes to play. After a few first downs, the drive stalled at midfield following a pair of incomplete passes to Jeff Badet and Juice Johnson.
The worst part? The loss essentially took UK out of bowl contention with a loaded back-half of the schedule. At least Juice gave us this one glorious highlight.
When the Wildcats play football on Thursday nights, good things do not happen. It’s a trend that should stop this fall.
Eastern Michigan lost every significant contributor from a team that went bowling last season. This year they’re expected to finish near the bottom of the MAC. They will face Mark Stoops’ deepest team to date with a quarterback out for revenge. A Kentucky 50-Burger appears within reach to open what could be an historic 2020 season.