Wildcats didn't have it in them

Sunday, November 22, 1998

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Tim Couch could see trouble from the start. The first play in Kentucky's gameplan was a reverse, and their remarkable quarterback was nearly sacked before he could complete the handoff.

The line buckled under Tennessee's assault, and Couch was forced to deliver the ball to Derek Homer so deep in the backfield that the UK running back was reduced to a tackling dummy. A game Kentucky was ill-prepared to play had begun with an omen that suggested an onslaught.

The outlook would not improve.

"You could tell the kids were trying to force themselves to go through it," said Mike Major, the Wildcats' defensive coordinator. "They came out and played hard at first, but we just didn't have anything in the tank today . . . It was kind of like, 'I'm trying hard, but I'm running slow.' "

A week dominated by the finality of funerals and hard questions without end came to a predictable conclusion Saturday when the psychologically spent Wildcats were flattened by the No. 1 Volunteers, 59-21.

Given Tennessee's talent, it might have been a mismatch under the best of circumstances. Given Kentucky's mindset, it might have made as much sense to forfeit.

"This was a week of emotions surrounded by tragedy," said UK coach Hal Mumme. "There's no way to describe it. It's been sad, a week of sad losses . . . We didn't play well, focused or with emotion."

Only last week, the Wildcats had finished their home schedule with a resounding victory over Vanderbilt. The next morning, they were awakened with word of a terrible crash in Pulaski County. Artie Steinmetz and Scott Brock were dead, and UK center Jason Watts had been hospitalized awaiting charges of manslaughter and drunken driving.

In an instant, the biggest game of the Wildcats' season became an afterthought, a distraction, a chore. Neither UK's heads nor its hearts were in blocking and tackling.

"All week long, I was focused on funerals," said Couch, who had been close friends with Brock since they were in pre-school. " . . . I don't think there was a moment all week when I didn't think about it."

This was Tennessee's 94th football game against Kentucky, but for the first time since 1925 the rivalry's relic Beer Barrel was hidden from view. A trophy associated with alcohol is inappropriate to any athletic endeavor, but especially on an occasion as sobering as this.

The Kentucky players wore black patches above their hearts, bearing the initials of Steinmetz and Brock and Watts' No. 57. A moment of silence was observed before the kickoff. Afterward, Mumme delivered a short lecture on the dangers of drinking and driving.

"I was glad he said that because it was true," said Kentucky safety Jeff Zurchner. "My parents have been hit by a drunk driver before. Something needed to be said."

Other things went unsaid. Mumme spared his players the Gipper speech, knowing their priorities were in other places.

"A lot of guys didn't have their minds on the game till the last minute," said Jeremy Streck, the UK guard from Cincinnati's Anderson High School. "You can't do that against these guys."

Kentucky was able to feed off its emotion for a while, and briefly led, 7-6, in the first quarter. But after being forced to punt on their first series, the Volunteers would score on eight straight possessions.

Kentucky had wanted to turn the game into a shootout, but the Vols simply had too many weapons. It might have been different on another day, but probably not by much.

"It was kind of a missed opportunity," Streck said. "But you can't make excuses. You've got to be ready when these things happen. Life throws you some funny curve balls."

Streck knew nothing of the fatal accident until he wandered into Kentucky's training room Sunday afternoon. He left immediately for the hospital. He counts Jason Watts as his best friend, and he counts himself blessed that he was not with him Sunday morning.

"I've gone with him a million times," Streck said. "God had to be looking over me."

Solace is where you find it.