Penn State shuts down Kentucky to take Outback Bowl
Posted: Saturday January 09, 1999 08:51 PM
TAMPA, Fla. (CNN/SI) -- It took a 6-foot-5 savior named Tim Couch to send Kentucky to a New Year's Day bowl. The Wildcats brought thousands upon thousands of fans to Tampa to cheer on their favorite son in what would be his final college game.
Unfortunately for Kentucky, it was running into a Joe Paterno-coached Penn State squad with plenty of experience playing on New Year's Day.
Armed with a devastating pass rush, the Nittany Lions showed exactly how a team should play on New Year's Day.
No. 22 Penn State grounded Couch and Kentucky's potent passing attack after a strong start and dominated the final three quarters of the Outback Bowl for a 26-14 victory.
Couch, playing his final college game, threw for two first-quarter touchdowns and finished with 337 yards passing. But he also was intercepted twice and sacked six times.
"A couple of things we did confused him ... We thought if we could make him think a little, we could get the rush to him," Paterno said.
"You don't get any better than they were on their first couple of drives ... We made some changes. Some of the things we did early in the game just didn't seem right, and we cut them out."
Paterno, the winningest coach in bowl history, improved his postseason record to 19-9-1. His 29th appearance in 33 seasons at Penn State ties him with Bear Bryant for first on the career list.
Kevin Thompson threw a 56-yard TD pass to Joe Nastasi, Chafie Fields scored on a 19-yard reverse and Travis Forney kicked an Outback Bowl-record four field goals for Penn State (9-3). The Nittany Lions also rushed for 233 yards, including 105 by Eric McCoo.
But the story of the game was the defense, which ranked 12th nationally during the regular season and led the Big Ten with 47 sacks. End Courtney Brown, with seven tackles and two sacks, was voted the game's most valuable player.
"They made some good adjustments in the second half," Couch said. "I can't remember a time in the last two years that we went a whole half without scoring."
The drought actually was three quarters.
"Our persistence was the key," Penn State linebacker LaVar Arrington said. "I think they protected well early on. But we kept coming. Jerry [defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky] kept sending us in, and eventually we started getting through."
Kentucky (7-5), playing in a New Year's Day game for the first time since the 1952 Cotton Bowl, had the country's second-most productive passing attack this season with Couch throwing for 4,275 yards and 36 touchdowns.
Penn State slowed down the junior by mixing coverages and unleashing a relentless pass rush after falling behind 14-3 on Couch TD passes of 36 yards to Lance Mickelsen and 16 yards to Anthony White.
"We did a lot of different things with the coverages," Paterno said. "There's no way you can keep giving the same look to a quarterback as good as Tim, who is as smart as he is and as well-coached as he is."
The Nittany Lions also blocked a short Kentucky field goal, stopped the Wildcats on downs to set up Fields' fourth-quarter TD, and turned back Couch's most promising drive of the second half in the closing minutes.
Couch, who threw for 8,159 yards and 73 touchdowns the past two seasons, had until Jan. 8 to decide whether he will skip his senior season and enter the NFL draft.
The expansion Cleveland Browns have the first pick and Couch has been monitoring their search for a coach. He said last week he might not be willing to leave Kentucky unless he's confident he'll be selected No. 1 overall.
He softened his stance a little after the game, saying he'd play for "whoever wants me most." He stressed, however, that he hasn't made up his mind.
"It's 50-50," he said, adding that he's torn between leaving to pursue a dream and returning to chase goals he and his teammates have set at Kentucky.
"It's going to come down to how I feel at the time," said Couch, who completed 30 of 48 passes.
"I hope I get to coach him for another season," said Kentucky's Hal Mumme, who signed a five-year, $4 million contract Thursday.
Eventually, though, Couch opted for the NFL Draft.
Penn State started slowly, missing a field goal after blocking a punt and settling for three points after a wide open Tony Stewart dropped a pass inside the Kentucky 15 with nobody between him and the goal line.
An offside penalty also cost the Nittany Lions two points, wiping out Brown's sack of Couch in the end zone late in the opening quarter.
The play still shifted the game's momentum.
Thompson threw his long touchdown pass to Nastasi on Penn State's next possession, Anthony King intercepted Couch twice within nine minutes, and Forney kicked a 26-yard field goal just before the half, trimming Kentucky's lead to 14-13.
Forney's third field goal put the Nittany Lions ahead midway through the third quarter and his fourth made it 19-14 going into the last period. Fields scored, putting the game out of reach after Penn State stopped Kentucky on downs at the Wildcats' 35 with just over 13 minutes left.
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