Date story was published: Sunday, November 08, 1998
Hal Mumme popped into the press room for his usual post-game Q&A last nightwith a sheepish grin and a fashion statement - one of those of thosepre-season, white "Focus 1/1/99" T-shirts.
"It feels good," the Kentucky coach said.
Six is sweet, indeed.
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Blitzing the blitzers with a string of three quick second-half touchdowns,Mumme's Kentucky Wildcats rallied from an 11-point deficit to knock offvisiting Mississippi State 37-35 in a wild one at Commonwealth Stadium, givingthe Cats the giddy status of bowl eligibility for the first time since 1993.
"Craig Yeast was going around with tears in his eyes," wide receiver GarryDavis said. "He was thanking people, telling them they didn't know what itmeant to the seniors."
"There were a lot of guys in the locker room with tears in their eyes,"defensive coordinator Mike Major said. "I had tears in my eyes."
After all, in just the second season of the Mumme Era, Kentucky climbed thesix-win hurdle, raising its record to 6-3 overall and 3-3 in the SoutheasternConference and earning its first shot at a bowl trip since the 1993 PeachBowl.
"Our players did a great job," Mississippi State Coach Jackie Sherrillsaid, "but Kentucky made some big plays."
The Cats did so the hard way - with their Heisman Trophy quarterbackperforming almost the entire game with a sprained thumb on his throwing hand;with the defense trying to harness Mississippi State's star back, J.J.Johnson, who rushed for 209 yards, and with the home team trailing 29-18 threeminutes into the second half.
After that, however, Mumme's Air Raid offense exploded out of the hangarfor three straight touchdowns in as many possessions to claim the win.Sophomore running back Derek Homer rushed for 130 yards and two touchdowns onjust 10 carries. Tim Couch, the junior quarterback who banged his thumb on aState helmet in the first quarter, completed 35 of 45 passes for 338 yards andtwo scores.
"I'm really proud of our kids," Mumme said. "Especially the seniors.They've worked so hard to get to this point."
Mississippi State (5-3, 3-2) made them work. The Bulldogs gained nearly 8yards a play on offense. On defense, coordinator Joe Lee Dunn's mix ofblitzing schemes gave the Cats fits much of the night.
"I'm glad I never have to play against those guys again," senior centerJason Watts said. "Finally, right there before halftime, we just got (mad) atthe way things were going."
Sparked by a 55-yard touchdown run by Johnson and a 45-yard interceptionreturn for a touchdown by defensive back Ashley Cooper, State carried a 22-18lead into intermission.
Then a Johnson 1-yard touchdown run with 12:40 left in the third quarterput State up 29-18 before the Cats rallied.
"I think we just kind of figured things out as the game went along," saidCouch, who was forced to dump off the ball for short gains in the first halfbecause of his painful thumb. "I started figuring out what they were doing tome. And then our backs, they were just unbelievable (the way) they wererunning the ball."
On the first possession of the comeback, Kentucky moved 48 yards on sixplays, the touchdown coming when Couch burned a Bulldogs blitz by firing a13-yard TD strike to Kevin Coleman (eight catches, 103 yards) with 5:35 leftin the third quarter. The two-point conversion failed.
Three plays into the second possession, Anthony White took a pitch 18yards. And Homer followed that by taking a pitch and ripping down the rightsideline 39 yards for a touchdown. Again the two-point conversion failed, butthe Cats led 30-29 with 2:32 left in the third period.
After a third straight Mississippi State punt, the Cats moved 87 yards innine plays, some of them bordering on spectacular. The first was a 35-yardgrab Davis made of a Couch floater when the Cats quick-snapped after Statehad jumped offsides. "That was a super catch," Mumme said.
No better than the TD throw, however. On third-and-goal at the 6-yard line,Couch rolled, trying to buy time. As he was hit, he threw back across to theleft side of the end zone. There, the 5-foot-9 (maybe) Yeast outjumped atleast two State defenders to make the leaping grab for the score.
"Craig Yeast made that play," Sherrill said. "We had Couch sacked."
"When I saw the ball coming," said Yeast, "I knew there was no way I wasgoing to let that ball hit the ground."
State wasn't ready to quit, though. Mississippi State got the ball back atits 34-yard line with 4:02 left. On the first play, Wayne Madkin threw 23yards to Kelvin Love. On th second play, Madkin fired a 43-yard touchdownstrike to Kevin Prentiss, cutting the lead to 37-35 with 3:31 left.
"Then the defense made the play of the game," Yeast said.
Defensive tackle Mark Jacobs grabbed Madkin and tossed the quarterback fora loss on the two-point conversion, saving UK's lead.
The Cats promptly took the ball, and on the first play, Yeast grabbed aCouch screen, broke back across the field and motored 34 yards to the State46. Three running plays later, UK had another first down and then ran out theclock on win No. 6.
"We haven't been invited yet, but hopefully we will be," said Mumme,sporting the T-shirt he gave to each player during training camp as a reminderof the team's goal for the season.
"We don't want to end up 6-5 or 7-4," Yeast said. "We want to finish 8-3and go to the best bowl we possibly can."