In 1997, Kentucky football finished with a 5-6 record, was 2-6 in the Southeastern Conference and showed no signs it could stop anyone’s offense.
And no one in Big Blue Nation minded at all.
In fact, perhaps no losing UK football team finished a season with more optimism for the future than Coach Hal Mumme’s first Air Raid squad.
That’s in part because the last game Big Blue Nation saw that year was an epic battle between two of college football’s most prolific quarterbacks, Tennessee’s Peyton Manning and Kentucky’s Tim Couch.
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The Nov. 22, 1997, game received national attention, especially with Manning as a front-runner for the Heisman Trophy. (He ended up second to Michigan’s Charles Woodson).
And Couch, a sophomore, was believed to be Manning’s heir apparent in the SEC East. Both would go on to be No. 1 overall picks in their respective NFL Drafts.
The game not only lived up to the hype, it surpassed it. It’s on YouTube in full at least twice two decades later with Tim Brando and Dave Rowe on the Jefferson Pilot Sports network broadcast.
While the Cats lost 59-31, they traded blows evenly for more than a half in front of a then-record sold out crowd of 61,076 at the formerly named Commonwealth Stadium.
“We didn’t care how we did it — keep it a long time or score in a hurry — we just knew we had to score a lot of points,” Tennessee Coach Phillip Fulmer said.
In his first year with UK, Mumme demonstrated his offense could pick apart any SEC foe. The Cats beat No. 20 Alabama for the first time since 1922 earlier in the year in overtime.
Mumme took chances. He went for it on fourth down. And he didn’t care if his defense held. UK was out to try to outscore the opponent and any snap could lead to a score. It was a seachange from the offensively moribund Bill Curry era UK had just escaped.
Manning and Couch each broke then-school records for passing yards that day.
Manning threw for 523 yards and five touchdowns. He was a perfect 11-of-11 for 267 yards and two touchdowns in the second half.
Couch threw for 476 yards and two TDs. At one point, he completed 13 straight passes. His 476 yards passing were a UK record that has been surpassed only four times since
Perhaps forgotten, Jamal Lewis, who would go on to win a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens, became Tennessee’s first true freshman to run for more than 1,000 yards in a season. He had 128 yards rushing and four touchdowns and gashed the UK defense on two uncovered pass routes, one that went for 50 yards and one of his scores.
His UK counterpart, Derek Homer, rushed for 137 yards and caught a touchdown.
The game had 42 plays of 10 or more yards, 21 plays of 20 or more, 11 plays of 30 or more, seven plays of 40 or more, five plays of 50 or more and three plays of 60 or more.
There were 1,329 yards of total offense. Tennessee’s 695 yards of total offense were the most ever against a Kentucky defense.
There were 57 first downs and 12 touchdowns.
“It was kind of fun, wasn’t it,” Mumme said after the game.
In the first half, Kentucky matched Tennessee big play for big play and had a chance to tie the game before the break.
But poor clock management let time run out well within field goal range and UK went into the break down 24-21.
An 87-yard touchdown pass from Tim Couch to Kio Sanford, with Sanford going about 85 yards after the catch was the second-longest pass play in UK history at the time.
The Cats could not hold serve in the second half. Tennessee opened the half with a TD drive to take a 31-21 lead. UK responded with a drive to the Tennessee 11-yard line, but turned the ball over on downs trying to convert a fourth-and-2 as Homer slipped on his cut trying to gain the yardage.
The Vols scored twice more before Kentucky would answer again and pulled away for the school’s 13th straight win over the Cats.
“We’re disappointed,” said offensive guard John Schlarman after the game. He would go on to become his alma mater’s offensive line coach under Mark Stoops. “We thought we could win this game. But we’ve got a lot to be proud of.”