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COLLEGE FOOTBALL / WEEK 12

Tennessee Continues March to Fiesta Bowl

Southeastern Conference: No. 1 Volunteers breeze in 59-21 victory over Kentucky team grieving from accident.

November 22, 1998|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee defeated Kentucky on Saturday, 59-21, although the Volunteers probably could have picked the final score.

Last week, to get a win, Tennessee needed the Arkansas quarterback to trip over his feet and fumble away the game.

No such luck was required Saturday at Neyland Stadium, where 107,252 fans watched Tennessee take another step closer to the Fiesta Bowl with a punishing and business-like victory against a school that unsuccessfully tried to play a game while still in mourning.

The Wildcats took the field six days after the truck crash that killed Kentucky player Arthur Steinmetz and Christopher Scott Brock, Kentucky quarterback Tim Couch's best friend.

Jason Watts, the Wildcats' starting center and the truck's driver, has been charged with second-degree manslaughter and one count of drunken driving.

Watts did not play Saturday, but Couch did, knowing how close he almost said "yes" when his friends asked him to go along on last Sunday morning's hunting trip.

Couch declined because he had family in town. On Wednesday, he buried Brock, a childhood friend from Hayden, Ky., and then did what he could to get ready for the nation's top-ranked team.

"I had to go to my best friend's funeral," Couch said afterward. "I didn't get to prepare as much as usual, but I'm not making any excuses."

It's doubtful Kentucky could have handled Tennessee in the best of times.

To inspire his shellshocked team, Coach Hal Mumme faked an early punt and gambled on fourth down numerous times, to no avail.

"The sad truth of the matter is you can't go out and play against great athletes with an emotionally spent team," Mumme said.

Tennessee made sure Kentucky never got off the mat.

Kentucky held a 7-6 lead in the first quarter before Tennessee scored 32 unanswered points to take a 38-7 lead into the half. The Volunteers took the lead for good late in the first quarter on Shawn Bryson's one-yard run. Tee Martin's successful pass to Bryson on the two-point conversion made it 14-7, and it was a Tennessee waltz from there.

Couch finished with his usual glossy numbers, completing 35 of 56 passes for 337 yards and two touchdowns. But he was sacked six times by a relentless Tennessee defense that took advantage of Kentucky center Aaron Daniel, making his first collegiate start in place of Watts.

Couch entered the postgame interview room battered and bruised, his right arm in a sling. Couch said he may have separated his shoulder.

"They wanted a shootout and they got it," Tennessee receiver Cedrick Wilson said.

If it was a shootout, it was one-sided.

Tennessee outgained Kentucky, 466 yards to 376, and likely tightened its hold as No. 1 in the Associated Press poll.

Tennessee, 10-0 overall and 7-0 in the Southeastern Conference, clinched the East division championship and will play either Arkansas or Mississippi State in the SEC title game on Dec. 5.

"We're not finished yet," linebacker Steve Johnson said. "We clinched the SEC East, but we've got bigger goals and bigger plans than this."

Tennessee, No. 1 in the bowl championship series standings, is two victories away from securing a spot in the Jan. 4 Fiesta Bowl. The Volunteers play at Vanderbilt next week before playing in the SEC title game.

The magnitude of Tennessee's victory may have also helped UCLA in the Bruins' quest to hold their No. 2 position in the BCS standings ahead of Kansas State.

Tennessee's convincing victory may bump the Volunteers from No. 2 to No. 1 ahead of Kansas State in today's ESPN/USA TODAY coaches' poll.

If that happens, No. 3 UCLA will pick up a half-point on Kansas State in the BCS computer, which could be enough to stave off the fast-charging Wildcats, who have been making up ground on UCLA in the strength-of-schedule component.

UCLA had a .74 lead over Kansas State entering play Saturday. The top two teams in the final BCS poll on Dec. 6 will play for the national title on Jan. 4. If Tennessee, UCLA and Kansas State win out, one unbeaten school is going to be left behind.

Talk of polls and bowls rang hollow for Kentucky, which fell to 7-4 and 4-4.

"I think everyone's going to be glad to get to Thanksgiving," Mumme said.

It was a week for pause and reflection.

Kentucky players wore patches on their uniforms to honor Steinmetz, Brock and Watts.

"I hope that meant a lot to the families of those who passed away and to Jason," Couch said.

Mumme, drained by the week's events, used his postgame speech to lecture his players.

"Our sad loss was brought on by drunk driving," Mumme said he told his team. "The next time you think of putting a beer bottle or a whiskey bottle to your lips, you've got to think of Artie's [Steinmetz] parents in front of that church."

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