Date story was published: Thursday, December 30, 1999
NASHVILLE -- Jeff Snedegar stood outside the Kentucky locker room and gave it a what-can-you-do shrug and smile. It was the smile of a senior. This was it for him, his last college game. He had played well, and his team had played hard -- what more was there left to say.
"Sometimes," said the linebacker, "it just seems like we're not all that lucky."
And even with the progress the school's football program has made the past two seasons -- consecutive bowl appearances; consecutive seasons of six or more wins -- it is still not quite good enough to overcome bad luck.
Proof returned yesterday. Playing before a hugely supportive crowd of 59,221 at Adelphia Coliseum, and playing as a three-point favorite, the Wildcats first lost their All-American tight end, James Whalen, to injury midway through the first quarter.
Then they lost a double-digit lead, and ultimately they lost the game, falling 20-13 to Syracuse in the second Music City Bowl.
Playing the visitor role in what resembled a UK home game, Syracuse also played spoiler. Sophomore back James Mungro rushed for 162 yards. Embattled quarterback Troy Nunes completed an efficient 11 of 15 passes. And, after the first three minutes, the stout Syracuse defense kept a struggling UK offense out of the end zone.
It was the first time in the Mumme era the Cats held an opponent to 20 or fewer points and lost. UK was previously 10-0 when meeting that standard.
Then again, this was the first time this season the Cats had to make do without the talented Mr. Whalen, the senior who caught an NCAA-record 90 receptions, becoming UK's first first-team AP All-American since 1977.
"I won't use that excuse," UK Coach Hal Mumme said, "but obviously when you lose your All-American it is tough. He was the one guy Dusty Bonner has that chemistry with."
That was no more obvious than in the game's first two drives. On the sixth play, Bonner found Whalen for a 45-yard completion, setting up a 3-yard Kendrick Shanklin TD run. On UK's next possession, Whalen made an over-the-shoulder catch for 20 yards while blanketed by linebacker Keith Bulluck at the Syracuse 12.
On the next play, however, Whalen caught a pass in the left flat and was cut down by defensive back Ian McIntosh. He came down wrong on his right elbow, dislocating it.
"The last time I saw that was in my 11th-grade year of high school," UK trainer Jim Madaleno said. "You don't forget those things."
The next time the Cats saw Whalen was with four minutes remaining in the first half. His right arm was in a sling.
Kentucky had used the pre-bowl month to restock an ailing receiving corp. Quentin McCord returned from a sprained arch. Brad Pyatt returned from a sore foot. Various ailments to backup receivers had healed.
"We started off really well, but when we lost him, it took a lot of wind out of our sails," Mumme said.
Seemingly from the moment Whalen was carted off to the locker room. The Orangemen stiffened on that drive, forcing Marc Samuel to kick a 22-yard field goal for a 10-0 lead.
Then when UK did get some momentum going, moving from midfield to a first-and-goal at the Syracuse 4-yard line in the second quarter, the Orangemen turned ornery. They kept the Cats out of the end zone. Then they blocked Samuel's chip-shot, low-trajectory, 20-yard field goal.
"It wasn't blocked, it was kicked into our linemen," Mumme said. "The only bad placement was Marc's foot on the ball."
"I know people say it was Marc's fault," running back Anthony White said. "But it was our fault for having the ball at the 1 and not getting it in."
Meanwhile, there went Syracuse the other way. On the first play, Mungro burst up the middle for 86 yards before being run down by Willie Gary at the UK 3-yard line. Two plays later, Kyle Johnson scored on a 2-yard run.
"Anthony Wajda ran up on the play and got out of position," said defensive coordinator Mike Major, who sat Wajda for much of the second half. "Their guy just ran right by him."
And he ran his team back into the game, down just 10-7 at the half. "From that point on," Syracuse Coach Paul Pasqualoni said, "I thought we were able to take control of the game."
The Syracuse defense certainly controlled the UK offense. Kentucky gained 155 yards and scored three points the second half. In the third quarter, Syracuse had the football 10:46, compared with UK's 4:14.
Finally, with 9:08 left, Syracuse took the lead 14-13 on a 32-yard Mungro run. Then, with his offense still sputtering, and Syracuse at the UK 20-yard-line with 1:47 left, Mumme used his final timeout to tell his defense to let Syracuse score. Mungro skipped untouched to the end zone.
"It was the only chance we had," Mumme said. "We were out of timeouts and they were just going to run out the clock."
A trick-play lateral on UK's kickoff return was flagged for being thrown forward, moving the ball back to the 4-yard line. And Bonner could never find a downfield opening. His dinks moved to the 'Cuse 42-yard line with one second left, but the end-of-the-game Hail Mary was broken up at the Orangemen 10-yard line.
"I think losing Whalen messed us up a lot," White said. "Their run defense was pretty stiff, so we had to throw the ball. And Whalen is so valuable on third downs. We were really searching for answers."
Searching for luck.