Date story was published: Sunday, October 25, 1998
Crossing that expansion bridge from pretender to contender comes with atoll booth. A price is paid. There are no more moral victories. No more "closeis good enough."
"I'm tired of us having to bounce back," said Kentucky safety Jeff Zurcher,a cut beneath his chin, 17 tackles on his stat sheet. "I'm tired of, 'You guysplayed well, you just didn't quite pull it out.' I'm sick of that."
"This one was tougher than Arkansas," said quarterback Tim Couch, his eyeand cheek pink from a first-half finger poke. "We could be 6-2 instead of5-3."
"We were right there," said receiver Craig Yeast, reaching for the upbeat."Missed opportunities. It happens."
When it happened before, Kentucky football might have spun defeat into thesolace of at least being competitive. Not now, not after last week's win atLSU, not after this season. And not after yesterday when for the third time infour games the Cats went down to the final play, only to lose 28-26 to11th-ranked Georgia.
On its last play, UK attempted what it hoped would be a game-winning49-yard Seth Hanson field goal with 10 seconds left. Jimmy Haley's snap was toholder Matt Mumme's left. By the time the backup quarterback could put theball in place, Hanson was on top of him, forcing Mumme into a desperationheave that was intercepted.
"By the time he got it down," Hanson said, "I was already there."
Led by a magnificent Quincy Carter, Georgia moved to 6-1 overall, 4-1 inthe SEC. The Bulldogs quarterback completed 10 of 14 passes for 147 yards andtwo scores, plus ran for 114 yards, including a 49-yard touchdown.
"He's just a hell of a football player," UK defensive coordinator MikeMajor said.
Kentucky fell to 5-3 overall, 2-3 in the SEC, and into an off week ofwondering what if.
"What if we had made that fourth-and-1? What if we hadn't had so manypenalties?" said Couch, who threw for 326 yards and two touchdowns. "Thoseare the things that stick in your mind."
For the second straight year the Cats battered Georgia in the statisticsonly to lose. Hal Mumme's team outgained Georgia 530-332 and earned 28 firstdowns to the Bulldogs' 11.
"They controlled the clock," Georgia Coach Jim Donnan said.
UK controlled the scoreboard early, too. The Cats led 10-0 and were headedtoward a 17-point lead with a first-and-goal at the Georgia 10-yard line onUK's third possession. Three plays later, however, it was fourth-and-goal atthe 1-yard line. And the control collapsed.
"I'm arrogant. I thought we could score there," Mumme said. "If you'regoing to blame anybody, blame me."
The play called for Couch to pitch to the running back headed to the rightside or, if the defensive end rushed, carry the ball himself on a bootlegleft. Couch chose left.
"The end did bite," Mumme said. "But give Orantes Grant credit. He made agreat play."
The Bulldogs linebacker collared Couch for a 3 -yard loss. Six plays later,Carter skipped loose for his 49-yard scamper and a Georgia touchdown. Apossible 17-point lead became a 10-7 game.
"I don't know if it would have been a knockout blow if we would have scoredthere," Couch said, "but it would have been big."
Still, Kentucky increased the lead to 17-7, and soon the Kentucky defenseappeared to be retrieving the ball for its hot offense, only to see yellow. Aflag (the Cats had nine for 75 yards on the day) hit UK defensive tackleMarvin Major for roughing Carter on a third-down pass that had fallenincomplete.
"I thought it was a bad call," the senior said. "I didn't know he hadthrown the ball. I thought I was close enough to hit him."
Georgia promptly scored to make it 17-14. Three minutes into the thirdquarter Donnan's Bulldogs had the lead as Carter found Tony Small for a34-yard touchdown. When a Hanson 42-yard field goal cut it to 21-20, Carterthrew an 8 -yard touchdown to tight end Jermaine Wiggins, making it 28-20.
Kentucky's Derek Homer scored from a yard out to make it 28-26. UK went fortwo, but the run failed.
On their next possession the Cats were moving again, getting a first downat the Bulldogs' 28-yard line. But then...
"I think Kirby Smart was watching our tapes," Mumme said.
"He saw it coming," Couch said.
"It" was a slant pass to Garry Davis that Smart, the Bulldogs' heady strongsafety, anticipated and intercepted with 11:36 left, killing the Cats' drive.
UK appeared to be all but dead with Georgia driving late before lightningstruck in the form of Zurcher's head. The safety knocked the ball loose fromthe arms of Georgia's Ronnie Bradley.
"All I know is that I stuck my head in there," Zurcher said. "I didn't evenknow the ball came out."
It did. Freshman Dennis Johnson recovered at the UK 24-yard line. Exactlytwo minutes remained. Playing patiently but also squandering key seconds, theCats took short stabs, moving to the Georgia 32-yard line with 10 secondsleft. On came Hanson, who had booted a 33-yarder at LSU last week for a 39-36victory over the then-No. 21 Tigers. This time, he never got the chance.
"A typical day at the SEC office," an obviously disappointed elder Mummesaid. "Last week we made the field goal; this week we didn't."
"This one is the hardest so far," Zurcher said. "We really wantedback-to-back wins against ranked opponents. But we didn't make the plays. Weshot ourselves in the foot."
"We've got to eliminate the penalties and the mistakes," Couch said."Things like that are killing our football team."
"It's a three-game season," Major said. "That's the way we have to look atit."
From the other side of that bridge. There, it doesn't hurt like it did. Ithurts worse.