Date story was published: Sunday, November 24, 1991
It began as a warm, sunny day, something like Florida sunshine. Clear skies. Comfortable temperatures. Sweater weather. A perfect day for football.
It ended under dark clouds and artificial lights, the air cold, the skies near black. A November drizzle fell on Commonwealth Stadium. People huddled under coats. A telling end to a gloomy season.
So it was yesterday as 10th-ranked Tennessee placed a methodical 16-7 beating on Kentucky in the home team's 1991 finale.
"I think we did what we were supposed to do," said UT defensive end Chuck Smith. "We were supposed to kick Kentucky's butt on the field and that's what we did."
Unlike a year ago, it was not the Volunteers' high-powered offense that kept "The Beer Barrel" for the seventh straight time. The visitors managed just 355 total yards (149 by tailback James "Little Man" Stewart), three John Becksvoort field goals and an 8-yard Stewart touchdown run.
But Tennessee's defense, led by ends Smith and Chris Mims, smothered the Kentucky offense, allowing a measley 145 yards and one score. Only twice did UK move from its territory into Big Orange land. "I thought our defensive scheme was outstanding," Coach Johnny Majors said.
The Fiesta Bowl-bound Vols improved to 8-2 overall, 4-2 in the Southeastern Conference. Tennessee wraps up its regular season next week against 5-5 Vanderbilt.
For the first time since 1982, Kentucky ended its year without a conference victory. The Cats wound up 3-8 overall and 0-7 for a last place SEC finish.
"It's disappointing that we didn't have as good a season as we wanted," UK center Matt Branum said. "But there were some building blocks."
Last week's performance was supposed to be a definitive one. Down 28-3 at Florida, the Cats rallied before losing 35-26. Would that carry over? Would the occasion of legendary announcer Cawood Ledford's last football game add incentive?
It seemed so the first drive when Kentucky marched from its own 40-yard line to a first down at the Tennessee 35. But after three botched plays, Doug Pelfrey's 50-yard field-goal attempt smacked into a headwind and fell short.
Yet even after Tennessee had taken a 3-0 lead on a 22-yard Becksvoort field goal, the Cats appeared to be in business when nose guard Damon Betz intercepted an Andy Kelly pass at the Tennessee 16. But the first play of the second quarter, third-and-goal from the UT 5-yard line, UK quarterback Pookie Jones lost the ball after the snap and UT's Darryl Hardy recovered.
"We were going to run a trap," Cat Coach Bill Curry said. "But the first thing you do on a trap is deny penetration. We did not do that and that's inexcusable."
"I think I got hit from behind as I was turning and I lost the ball," Jones said. "If we could've pushed it in that would have made a big difference in the game."
Then Jones jammed his right thumb near the end of the second quarter and did not return. ("I couldn't grip the ball," he said.)
Fortunately, the Cats' much-maligned defense was keeping matters close. Becksvoort added field goals of 35 and 28 for a 9-0 Tennessee halftime lead.
But to start the second half, the Big Orange finally cashed in, marching 65 yards in 10 plays. Stewart did the honors from 8 yards out, making it 16-0.
Seventy seconds into the last period, Kentucky finally got on the board. Quarterback Ryan Hockman, not exactly a Pookie-type scrambler, hurried 29 yards to the Vol 25, setting up a 1-yard Craig Walker score. The UT lead was 16-7.
Then Kentucky got the ball back, thanks to an excellent short-yardage stand at its own 30-yard line. On fourth-and-two, UK nose guard Joey Couch dropped fullback Mario Brunson a yard short.
"But we couldn't protect the passer," Curry said. "When we did, we couldn't pass the ball. And we had some penalties that hurt us."
Second play, Hockman hit tailback Clyde Rudolph for a 12-yard gain. But a holding call wiped out the play. Two pressured incompletions later, the Cats were forced to punt. End of story.
"Physically, they are the best-looking Tennessee defense I've seen," Curry said. "We just could not block them."
"The biggest thing was their strength," Branum said. "They were a stronger team than we've played all year."
The Vols especially bottled up Jones, who accounted for 297 yards at Florida. With Smith and Mims in his face the whole first half yesterday, Jones ended up with a minus 13 yards on 12 rushing attempts. His longest run was five yards.
"He didn't really get a chance to scramble, and we weren't too much worried about his drop-back passing," Smith said. "I think he was a little nervous, but then most quarterbacks are a little nervous when they see me and then Chris coming from the other side."
"They saw what we were able to do last week and compensated, as good coaches will do," Curry said. "Their alignments took away some things we were trying to do."
But Curry centered most of his post-game comments on his program, on how it was headed in the right direction despite the record.
"The record is certainly a major disappointment to me and our team," the coach said, inside the warmth of Wildcat Den, "but the growth is evident."
Outside, a cold drizzle fell on a Commonwealth Stadium awaiting the promise of a new day.