Date story was published||| Sunday, September 07, 1997
STARKVILLE, Miss. - It was one big play on a day of big plays, but it just as easily could have been the play, the emblematic play, the one play that showed all day it was either one way or the other. It was a feast-or-famine play.
It was the play with four minutes left in the final quarter. It was Kentucky, down a point, facing third-and-11 from its own 38-yard line. It was Mississippi State, characteristically going for the jugular, bringing a delayed safety blitz. It was sophomore quarterback Tim Couch dropping back yet again to pass. It was senior wideout Kio Sanford motoring into the uncovered zone.
"We get the ball to Kio," UK Coach Hal Mumme said, "and we score a touchdown."
"No one was on him," Couch said. "If I would have had one more second... But they brought an extra guy."
That guy was Eric Brown, State's "Dog" safety, who blitzed in untouched from the left side and promptly plowed into Couch's right side. The ball popped loose. State recovered. Six plays later, State scored. A big play on a wild day.
"If we could have gotten that play off... " Couch said.
It wasn't just one play, of course, not in yesterday's Starkville shootout, the one in which host Mississippi State overcame an 11-point halftime deficit to run down Kentucky in the second half, then passed the Cats in the fast lane for a 35-27 win at Scott Field.
First-half feast: UK 21-10.
Second-half famine: State 25-6.
Bulldog quarterback Matt Wyatt hit Kevin Prentiss with a 47-yard touchdown five minutes into the third quarter, starting a comeback that extinguished a second straight remarkable performance from Couch, who tied an SEC record by completing 39 of 61 passes for 349 yards and four scores.
And it probably wasn't what Mumme said afterward, either, the head coach graciously taking his first loss in his new job squarely on his shoulders.
"You got to give credit to Coach (Jackie) Sherrill, and I thought Joe Lee Dunn did a great job in the second half adjusting," Mumme said. "And I told the kids in the locker room that we couldn't overcome my coaching in the third quarter. I got us in a hole, got kind of conservative down on our end of the field."
Conservative? Mumme? The man who ordered up a school-record 62 passes?
"I gave them a chance to seize momentum," the coach said, "and they made us pay for it."
Instead, it was more like a Mississippi State defense, coordinated by that mad scientist Dunn, that mixed up its blitzes, disguised its zones and grounded UK's high-flying attack the final 30 minutes.
"They didn't really change a lot, they just started doing it better, you know?" Mumme said. "Where I messed up is that I didn't attack them like I did the first half."
It was a thunderous first half, much like the week before when the Cats exploded from the gate in a 38-24 win over Louisville. This time, with Dunn opening the game without a traditional defensive line - all 11 players lined up off the ball, as if in pass coverage -Mumme caught the Bulldogs in a blitz on the game's fourth play. Anthony White took a draw play 39 yards. Next snap, Couch hit Craig Yeast for a 27-yard gain that eventually set up his 6-yard toss to Lance Mickelsen, with the junior-college transfer making a juggling catch in the end zone for a 7-0 lead.
"That's what I mean," Mumme said. "We were attacking more in the first half."
By intermission, Couch had blitzed the blitz for two more scores, a 17-yarder to Kevin Coleman and a 29-yard strike to Sanford. His stats read 22-for-36 for 211 yards and three touchdowns. Kentucky had gained 235 yards, Mississippi State 85.
"But I didn't feel too bad," said State's Brown, a senior from San Antonio, Texas. "I knew we'd come back, just like we did last week (in a 13-10 win over Memphis)."
"It was just a matter of time defensively that we started getting to them," Sherrill said.
Alas, he was right. First possession of the second half, UK went three-and-out for the first time. Second UK possession, Couch overshot tight end Jimmy Haley, the ball sailing to State free safety Tim Nelson, who returned it to the UK 31. Five plays later, big back J.J. Johnson scored from 2 yards out and State led 22-21, the first deficit of the Mumme Era.
A Mumme trick play helped regain the lead. Calling a fake punt from its own 46, UK's backup quarterback Dusty Bonner, lining up as the personal punt protector, hit an open Haley for a 29-yard gain. Three plays later, Sanford made a one-handed grab of a Couch pass in the end zone for a 27-22 advantage. Mumme opted to try for two points, but Couch was picked off in the end zone.
"There was still a lot of time left," Mumme said of his conversion choice with 3:04 left in the third. "I was sort of second-guessing myself after those two field goals, but that's part of life."
First a 48-yarder and then a 32-yarder from Brian Hazelwood put the Bulldogs in front 28-27 with 7:14 left. That set up the feast-or-famine play, the Cats making a couple of first downs before Brown barreled in to bruise Couch's ribs.
"I'm sore," said the quarterback who was sacked five times and hit on a half-dozen other occasions.
He sported a gash on his throwing hand after making contact with a Bulldog helmet.
"They were physical. They got to me a few times," Couch said.
They didn't get to Mumme's mood, however. Not that he let show, anyway.
"I thought we played as hard as we could play," he said. "Tim was courageous. We made some great catches. The defense played well enough to win. The kids just couldn't overcome my coaching today."
Or, maybe, they were just one play away.