Date story was published: Sunday, November 24, 1996
There was no fantastic finish, no glorious finale . In the end, to complete the Bill Curry Era of Kentucky football, the Cats reached down one more time and found themselves running on empty.
And running and running and running in vain, never catching that Tennessee bullet train.
Buried under a barrage of Peyton Manning air strikes and Tennessee big plays, Kentucky ended its '96 season and the Curry tenure by taking an all-too-typical 56-10 pounding yesterday at Neyland Stadium.
Manning, in what may have been his final game on his home turf, completed 16 of 23 passes for 317 yards and three touchdowns in just two and a half quarters as Tennessee (8-2) stretched its "Beer Barrel" victory string to an even dozen.
And the Vols did it with lightning rounds, rolling up 638 total yards. Of Tennessee's eight touchdowns, six came from 20 or more yards out. Two came from beyond the 50-yard line.
"We continued to blow coverages and give up big plays," said Curry. "When you do that against Tennessee, you get beat bad."
Curry's final season ended 4-7.
It was a sudden-splat end to not just the 26-52 Curry tenure but to UK's three-game win streak. The Cats had responded to the news their coach would not be retained by stringing together wins over Georgia, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt.
"I think we spent our emotional reserve the last three weeks," said Curry yesterday. "We went to the well and there wasn't enough there to compete against this kind of football team."
"I thought we came into the game emotionally ready to play," said quarterback Billy Jack Haskins, who played with a partially separated left shoulder. "We had a lot of confidence, and we got a couple of turnovers right away. But then it just kind of fell apart."
Indeed, early on it appeared as if the sentimental string might be stretched one more week. The Cats drew first blood. A 42-yard burst from tailback Derick Logan set up a 23-yard Brian Johnson field goal and a 3-0 Kentucky lead.
But then the Tennessee's lightning storm began, the first strike coming when Manning hit Peerless Price over the middle, and the sophomore wide receiver with the terrific name split Cat defenders and breezed 80 yards for a touchdown. UT 7-3.
The ensuing kickoff turned into a pop-up that Filmore Wester fumbled and Tennessee's Dwayne Goodrich recovered at the UK 31. Four plays later, Jay Graham scored from 7 yards out. UT 14-3.
In the second quarter, backup tailback Shawn Bryson broke a 42-yard run, which set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Chester Ford, the former Danville High star. UT 21-10.
Later in the same quarter, Manning hit Andy McCullough with a picture-perfect 38-yard touchdown pass . UT 28-10. The rout was on.
"I think emotionally we were ready to play, but we had some people injured and then some more got hurt," said middle linebacker Mike Schellenberger, who was hobbled by an ankle sprain. "Then it just started to snowball after that."
In the third quarter, UK paid the Price again, this time when Manning hit Peerless for a 59-yard touchdown. UT 35-10.
Next, Graham ripped off a 35-yard touchdown run. UT 42-10. Forty-nine seconds later, Vol cornerback Raymond Austin returned a Haskins pass 26 yards for a score. UT 49-10. Later that same quarter, backup quarterback Jermaine Copeland scooted 30 yards for yet another touchdown. UT 56-10.
In the first half alone, Tennessee outgained Kentucky 315-65. Manning hit on 11 of 16 passes for 222 yards and two touchdowns the first two periods. Kentucky, meanwhile, managed just 154 yards, for the game its lowest output since a meager 67 yards in a 65-0 loss to Florida.
"Give Tennessee credit, they're very talented," said Schellenberger. "We would make mistakes, and they would take advantage of them."
The Vols did it in ways Georgia, Misissippi State and Vanderbilt could not do the last three weeks, when the emotionally charged Cats started a splendid Curry send-off.
"To tell you the truth, I think the Vanderbilt game took a lot out of us," said senior corner Van Hiles. "We hadn't beaten them for five years and it was our last home game. That game meant a lot to us."
Not that yesterday's event meant nothing.
"We're just all really disappointed," said Haskins. "These coaches worked hard and we didn't send them out the way they deserved to go out."