Date story was published: Sunday, November 21, 1999
It was a tightrope over an orange sea, with no room for error.
If Kentucky was to celebrate the finish of its surprise regular season by reversing a decade's worth of Tennessee dominance, the bruised Cats would need a perfect trip.
Instead, at a dark and dreary Commonwealth Stadium yesterday, as Tennessee rolled to its near-usual 56-21 victory, the Cats were cursed by the imperfect.
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There was an imperfect defense that could not stop Tennessee from scoring touchdowns on four of the Vols' first five possessions. There was an imperfect offense that committed a season-high six turnovers and stalled in the third quarter, cutting the engine on a possible comeback.
There was (to Hal Mumme's way of thinking) the imperfect officiating crew that made a pair of bad calls (to Hal Mumme's way of thinking) that cost the Cats dearly (to Hal Mumme's way of thinking).
Mainly, there was the fact that despite six wins and bowl eligibility this season, despite the two years added to Mumme's contract for a job well done, for Kentucky, topping Tennessee requires perfection.
"We made a lot of mistakes," quarterback Dusty Bonner said. "We gave them opportunities with our mistakes, and you just can't do that, because they're going to capitalize."
Tailback Travis Henry, the show his own thanks to Jamal Lewis' bad ankle, rushed for 179 yards and three touchdowns. True freshman back Onterrio Smith gained 82 yards and scored twice. Quarterback Tee Martin completed just seven of 18 passes, but for 155 yards and two more scores, and ran for another TD.
The Vols defense, victimized in last week's 28-24 loss at Arkansas, intercepted Bonner five times, including two by the SEC's leader in that category, free safety Deon Grant.
It was Tennessee's 15th straight win in the series, and the seventh time this decade the Vols scored at least 40 points on the Cats.
"I'm really proud of our football team for bouncing back after a tough and disappointing loss," Vols Coach Phil Fulmer said. Tennessee is 8-2 and still has hopes of a BCS bowl.
Was Mumme proud of his team, which fell behind 27-0 early, but rallied to within 27-14 by halftime?
"Yeah, I was pleased with them," said Mumme, his team's regular season complete at 6-5. "They just couldn't buy a break today."
It was a day when the Cats needed breaks by the bushel. Start with a struggling offense dangerously low on receivers. Example: Quentin McCord, whose 80-yard snatch-soar-and-score sparked last Saturday's 19-17 win over Vanderbilt, was a no-go with a foot sprain. Defensively, linebacker Jeff Snedegar played with the flu, and top corner Eric Kelly did not play because of a hamstring pull. Kelly's replacement, Jeremy Bowie, departed early because of a shoulder problem.
The injuries left the UK coaching staff scrambling.
On offense, Mumme concocted an empty backfield, five-receiver set with little-used freshmen tight ends Derek Smith and Bobby Blizzard among those split wide. On defense, Mike Major copied the game plan Arkansas used to success against Tennessee: stacking the line of scrimmage to stop the run.
"I guess they were a little better prepared for it this week," Major said afterward.
On its first series, Tennessee went up top. Martin hit Eric Parker for 26 yards to set up a 29-yard strike to Cedrick Wilson for the game's first score. On Tennnessee's second series, Henry broke off tackle and rumbled 40 yards for a touchdown. On the Vols' third series, after what Mumme complained was a bad pass interference penalty on UK corner Kenneth Grant, Henry rolled 61 yards for a touchdown.
In the Oct. 23 game at Georgia, the Cats trailed 21-0 with 11:37 left in the second quarter. Yesterday, the Cats trailed Tennessee 21-0 with 3:48 left in the first.
Still, at that point, UK had hope. The Cats appeared to reach the Tennessee 1-yard line when Smith hauled in a 32-yard pass form Bonner. But Smith was flagged for offensive pass interference. Two plays later, UK punted.
"The call on Derek Smith really hurt us, really hurt us," Mumme said. "We had a chance to go in halftime 27-20. It really hurt us. Really bad call."
The deficit grew to 27-0 before Kentucky began showing signs of life. An eight-play, 80-yard drive, ending with a 34-yard pass from Bonner to James Whalen, put the Cats on the board. An eight-play, 77-yard drive just before the half, with Anthony White taking in a Bonner pass from 3 yards out, made it 27-14 at the half.
In the third quarter, as the UK defense held, the Cats had two shots to pull closer. "It was real important for us to come out and get a score there after halftime," Whalen said. "But we didn't, it kind of went back and forth, and they grabbed the momentum right back."
Three Tennessee series, three Tennessee touchdowns. A Kendrick Shanklin fumble at UK's 38-yard line set up the second. A 61-yard run by Onterrio Smith accounted for the third and a 49-14 Vol advantage with 11:30 left in the game.
"Defensively, we did a heck of a job," Fulmer said, even though his team was outgained 478-465. "I don't know how many yards we gave up, but it's irrelevant because a lot of those yards came at the end."
In the end, all that's left for Kentucky is to sit and wait for the bowls to sort.
"Coach is pretty optimistic about it," White said. "We have good fan support. And I think our team is pretty exciting."
To beat Tennessee, however, it would have had to be perfect.