Derrick Ramsey (Larry Vaught Photo)
Vaught’s note: This is the first in a weekly series of posts that will cover the greatest football teams by decade starting in the 1970s to ever wear the blue and white for the University of Kentucky.
By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
To borrow a line from Charles Dickens in ” A Tale of Two Cities”, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. That seemed to be the situation for the University of Kentucky Football team in 1977. They were coming off of an impressive 8-4 season with a 21-0 win over No. 19 North Carolina in the Peach Bowl and a No. 18 ranking in the final AP Poll. Most of their key players were returning. But unfortunately the NCAA had recently banned UK from appearing in any bowl games for the 1977 season for recruiting violations within the football program.
The NCAA probation didn’t seem to dampen the enthusiasm of the BBN fans though. Season tickets were sold out early in the summer for the upcoming season. Expectations were high. Derrick Ramsey, the 6’6″ 230 lb. quarterback, was returning for his senior season after leading UK to a 5-1 SEC record and a share of the SEC crown along with a Peach Bowl victory in the 1976 season. Also returning was 6’7″ 250 lb. All-American candidate Art Still playing defensive end, Jim Kovach playing linebacker and Lexington’s own Dallas Owens playing the Wildcat (strong safety).
In early September the season started off in an underwhelming fashion. UK scored a late touchdown to beat North Carolina 10-7 at Commonwealth Stadium. The second game of the season the Wildcats traveled to Waco, Texas to take on the Baylor Bears. UK lost that day 21-6 to a Baylor team that would go on to finish the season near the bottom of the Southwest Conference. Coming home to play West Virginia at Commonwealth Stadium the Wildcats would win game three 28-13 but only after performing poorly in the first half of the game much to the dismay of the Big Blue fans. Unfortunately the season had not started off like the Big Blue Faithful had hoped.
Coming up in week four UK was scheduled to travel to University Park, Pennsylvania to take on Joe Paterno’s Nittany Lions of Penn State in a huge non-conference game. UK had beaten Penn State in Lexington 22-6 in the 1976 season. This year the Nittany Lions were ranked No. 4 in the AP Poll and looking for revenge. The game got off to a rocky start with UK falling behind early 10-0 on a Penn State field goal and a Jimmy Cefalo punt return for a touchdown. UK’s offense was sluggish and the team needed a spark. The Wildcats had already lost defensive star Jim Kovach and running back Rod Stewart to season ending injuries earlier in the year and needed a player to step up and make a play. Dallas Owens obliged. The play he made seemed to turn the tide of the entire season. Here is the play in his own words.
“They sent Cefalo (star wide receiver for Penn State) in motion,” Owens said in a 1998 interview. “We were so well-prepared, when I saw that, I knew what play they were running, I knew they were going to throw it to him in the flat. So I just stepped in front of him and (Fusina) threw me the ball.”
Owens intercepted the ball and ran it back 23 yards for a touchdown and that was all the spark the Wildcats needed to go on to upset Penn State on the road 24-20. Along with the upset win came a No. 16 ranking in the AP Poll – the first of many that season.
The following week UK played Mississippi State at home and beat the Bulldogs 23-7 to avenge a loss to Mississippi State in the 1976 season that was later forfeited by MSU due to their use of an ineligible player.
In week six UK took a trip down south to play No. 16 LSU in Death Valley. The defense led the way as Dallas Owens had an interception that he returned 81 yards for a touchdown and Art Still scooped up a blocked field goal and ran it in for another touchdown as Kentucky beat LSU 33-13. The win at LSU catapulted Kentucky up to No. 8 in the weekly AP Poll.
Next on the schedule was an October SEC matchup with the Georgia Bulldogs down between the hedges at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Georgia. With Prince Charles watching from the stands the Kentucky defense demolished Georgia in a 33-0 defeat of the red and black clad Bulldogs. Georgia’s offense was held to 64 total yards through the first three quarters as UK dominated on both ends of the field. It was the worst defeat ever for Georgia by a Kentucky team.
The last game of October pitted UK against the Virginia Tech Hokies. The defense came to play that day and UK defeated the Hokies 32-0 for their second shutout in a row and final win of the season against a non-conference foe.
At this point in the season UK had three games left to play in the month of November – all SEC games. They started the final three game stretch with a visit to Dudley Field – home of the Vanderbilt Commodores. Although Vanderbilt historically fields an uncompetitive team in the SEC they always seem to play UK close and on many occasions have defeated the Wildcats. That would not be the case this year.
Kentucky broke a 6-6 tie at the half with 15 unanswered points to put UK ahead 21-6. Here’s how it happened. On the opening drive UK took the ball 80 yards for a touchdown. Using a run-oriented offense with a three back set Derrick Ramsey led the way down the field with a quarterback keeper around the right end for a 39 yard gain. He then hit wide receiver Dave Trosper with a 24 yard pass. A couple of plays later Derrick Ramsey bulled his way into the end zone for a touchdown from the 2 yard line. Ramsey would score again later in the game with a 45 yard run to the end zone.
While the offense was manhandling Vanderbilt’s defense UK was doing the same against the Commodore offense. The Wildcat defense set up the third touchdown of the day courtesy of a Dave Fadrowski interception that he returned to the Vandy 6 yard line. Joe Dipre, UK running back, ran it in from the 6 yard line to make the score 21-6. At that point the Vandy fans that were left – their were a few in the 34,000 plus in attendance – headed to the exits while the Big Blue Faithful continued to celebrate. The final score was 28-6 in favor of Kentucky.
Fred Pancoast, the Vanderbilt head coach, had this to say about the UK football juggernaught. “We just got beat by a great football team” said Pancoast. “Kentucky is the best team I have seen in the Southeastern Conference in a long time. We were actually lucky. It could have been a lot worse. Their defense is the best one I have ever seen in college football, and we tried everything in the world to stop Ramsey but couldn’t. He’s a great athlete.”
UK had two games left on the schedule and without a bowl game in sight they both became bowl games for the Cats. Their goal was to win the SEC to show the football world that they belonged in the same conversation with Alabama as the best team in the SEC – and maybe in the country. Since Alabama was not on the UK schedule all they could do was win the games that were.
The next game up was a road game with the Florida Gators at Florida Field in Gainesville, Florida. UK was ranked No.7 at the time and came into Gainesville with the SEC title on the line. They beat the Gators and head coach Doug Dickey that day 14-7 in a tightly fought battle.
The last game on the schedule was the Volunteers from Tennessee. UK entered the game needing a win to stay undefeated in the SEC and even with Alabama. The rough SEC schedule had taken it’s toll on the Wildcats physically. They had 7 starters injured including their standout quarterback and on-field leader, Derrick Ramsey. He had an arm injury that made it difficult for him to throw the football. Ramsey split time with Sophomore backup quarterback Mike Deaton that day.
UK started the game by falling behind 6-0 as Tennessee moved the ball down the field using an option offense with quarterback Jimmy Streater running the offense. In the second quarter UK opened up it’s rushing game behind the running of Derrick Ramsey and running back Joe Dipre. Running back Freddie Williams then ran the ball right up the middle for 15 yards to move UK into a 6-6 tie. Kicker Joe Bryant, a Tompkinsville native, then hit the extra point to put UK ahead 7-6. Tennessee would go ahead late in the game 17-14 but UK brought in Mike Deaton at quarterback to throw a 34 yard strike to standout wide receiver Felix Wilson. Coach Fran Curci then brought in Derrick Ramsey at quarterback – who carried the ball repeatedly down the field – to finish the drive and put UK up 21-17. Tennessee had one more drive in the game to try to win it. They moved the ball to the UK 22 yard line but quarterback Jimmy Streater fumbled on a option play after a hit by All-American defensive end Art Still. Linebacker Kelly Kirchbaum fell on the ball to preserve the victory. The Beer Barrel trophy would stay in Lexington as UK beat Tennessee two years in a row.
The Wildcats finished the season 10-1 and 6-0 in the SEC. Although the SEC does not recognize UK as SEC Champion in 1977 they proved on the field that year that they belonged at the top with Alabama. This was the best UK Football team since the squad that won the National Championship (still not recognized by the NCAA today) by winning the Sugar Bowl in 1950 against No.1 rated Oklahoma.
The Derrick Ramsey-led offense dominated teams on the field with their pounding run game and the defense built around All-American Art Still punished opponents that tried to run the ball between the tackles. Dallas Owens and the rest of the UK defensive backfield proved to be bandits in their own right as they created 25 turnovers through interceptions and fumble recoveries to generate points from the defensive side of the ball.
All in all this 1977 UK Football team should go down in history as the best team to play at UK since the Bear Bryant era. They did it through great leadership from key players on offense and defense, pure athleticism on the part of their star players and a will to win even in the midst of adversity ranging from the NCAA probation to the many injuries that occurred on the field. Regardless of their circumstances they found a way to win in the toughest football conference in the country and proved they belong among the best football teams in UK and SEC history.