Date story was published: Sunday, November 19, 1995
No exciting trips to exotic locales occupied their travel plans. No sandy beaches and crystal blue waters. No banquets emceed by Keith Jackson. No Mickey Mouse-led tours of Disney World. Yesterday was it, the end-game on this up-and-down 1995 Kentucky football campaign.
So the Cats made it a bowl of their own.
"We looked at this as the Orange Bowl for us," tailback Moe Williams said.
Make that the Big Orange Bowl, with the fourth-ranked Tennessee Volunteers the featured guest at Commonwealth Stadium, and a regional television audience peeking in.
And get this: Kentucky, a four-touchdown underdog, played as if it actually belonged, thank you, taking the vaunted Volunteers to the wire before falling 34-31.
Tennessee needed a sparkling 13-for-15 second-half passing performance from their super sophomore quarterback Peyton Manning, and a streak of 18 straight third-quarter points to overcome a 24-9 deficit and reach 9-1 overall and 6-1 in the conference.
Manning hit speedster Joey Kent with a 70-yard scoring bomb to put the Vols in front 27-24. Then when the Cats answered -- courageous Billy Jack Haskins pulling off an unbelievable 47-yard TD run -- Manning directed a methodical nine-play, 69-yard march, zipping a 15-yard scoring strike to Greg Kyler with 11:37 left that proved to be the game-winner, UT's 11th straight win in the Battle for the Beer Barrel.
"I told the team coming up that they had been spoiled," UT Coach Phil Fulmer said.
"We did not overlook UK," said Manning, who was 23-for-41 for 272 yards on the day. "Coach told us this would be their bowl game and to expect a tough fight."
The coach was right. Never mind that the UK game program displayed a picture of the Bourbon Barrel -- first prize in the UK-Indiana series -- or that Tennessee had won the two most recent clashes by a combined count of 100-0. This battle was a battle.
"We came out with the attitude we were going to make this a border war again," senior offensive tackle Barry Jones said.
They did just that. Williams, in possibly his final game as a Cat, rushed for 151 yards and three touchdowns. Haskins, playing with his separated left shoulder -- "Let me just say that never have I been more proud of a football player in my life than I am of Billy Jack Haskins," UK Coach Bill Curry said -- completed 11 of 19 passes for a career-high 168 yards.
"I'm bitterly disappointed that they didn't finish the job," said Curry, his team's season complete at 4-7. "I would liked to have clinched the deal."
They came close, thanks in part to a Mike Archer defense that kept Manning off balance the first half by disguising coverages. "We were able to get some down and distance situations that let us do some things," Archer said.
The UK offense, meanwhile, did some things of its own. Good things. Even after Craig Yeast dropped a sure-fire touchdown pass on the first series, coordinator Elliot Uzelac came right back to the play on the second series and Haskins hit UK's other true freshman receiver, Kevin Coleman, for a 59-yard gain, setting up Williams' 8-yard touchdown run and a 7-3 lead.
A 52-yard Williams scamper off a lateral swing pass, set up his own 6-yard score and a 17-6 Kentucky lead 1:15 before half.
When Kio Sanford returned the second-half kickoff 57 yards and, one snap later, Williams rumbled 26 yards to the end zone, the Cats led 24-9 just 1:13 into the second half.
"We were feeling good at that point, needless to say," Haskins said.
Not for long, however. Thing was, Tennessee's offense was starting to get it in gear. "They were doing the thing I feared most, running right at us," Archer said. "They did a little the first half, then got impatient. The second half, they stuck more to it."
And used the run to set up the pass. Starting with their final possession of the second quarter, the Vols went field goal, field goal, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown.
The big play was the play-action, 70-yard Manning to Kent strike down the left sideline in which the Vol receiver blew past cornerback George Harris and free safety Reggie Rusk. "We were in three-deep and they just ran right by us," Archer said.
Then Haskins ran right through the Vols. On the first play of the fourth quarter, on third-and-one from the UT 47, Haskins rolled right on an option, kept the football, turned upfield, spun, juked, bounced off tacklers, picked up a crushing block from Jones, and suddenly found himself in the clear for a 31-27 Kentucky lead.
"I don't think he was feeling any pain on that run," Curry said.
Tennessee tallied again, however. Then, with 11:23 to go, Haskins left for good, his aching left shoulder pleading no mas. "I got hit on the shoulder after I threw it and that was about it," Haskins said.
After Tennessee fumbled away a punt, replacement Jeff Speedy moved UK to a first down at the Tennessee 25. But a holding penalty placed the ball back to the 35. Three plays later, with exactly five minutes remaining, Brian Sivinski's 48-yard field goal was blocked.
Tennessee got the football and refused to let go. Same thing for the Beer Barrel. Only this time, it was a battle. Or a Big Orange Bowl.
"I like to win," Curry said when asked if he took any solace from the margin. "I love to win. I hate to lose."
Even a bowl game.