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Wildcat Strike
Ivan Maisel
September 08, 1997
Kentucky lets Couch off the bench, and he delivers, The Huskers' scheduling woes, A reality check in Florida
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September 08, 1997

Wildcat Strike

Kentucky lets Couch off the bench, and he delivers, The Huskers' scheduling woes, A reality check in Florida

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Coming Out Firing

Of the four quarterbacks who have won the Heisman Trophy in the 1990s, none had a more productive opening game in his Heisman season than Peyton Manning, the '97 favorite for the award, did last Saturday, when he threw five touchdown passes in less than three quarters of action.

Year

PLAYER, SCHOOL

Comp.-Att.

Yards

TDs

Int.

Result

1990

TY DETMER, BYU

33-46

387

1

2

Beat Texas-El Paso 30-10

1992

GINO TORRETTA. MIAMI

31-51

433

2

1

Beat Iowa 24-7

1993

CHARLIE WARD, FLORIDA STATE

16-26

194

0

0

Beat Kansas 42-0

1996

DANNY WUERFFEL, FLORIDA

15-28

224

1

0

Beat SW Louisiana 55-21

1997

PEYTON MANNING, TENNESSEE

26-38

310

5

1

Beat Texas Tech 52-17

Heisman Trophy favorite Peyton Manning of Tennessee got his bandwagon oiling nicely last Saturday—26 of 38 passes for 310 yards and a school-record-tying five touchdown passes in a 52-17 romp over Texas Tech. Even so. Manning didn't lave as good a day as another SEC quarterback, Kentucky sophomore Tim Couch. In his first start at home, Couch completed 36 passes (50 attempts) for 398 yards, both school records, in a 38-24 upset of Louisville, the in-state rival that ripped he Wildcats by 24 points in last year's opener. "It's a dream come true," said Couch, who grew up as a Kentucky fan in Hyden, Ky. "I went through the hard times last year. Now it's time for the good times."

Couch, the holder of several national high school passing records (SI, Nov. 20, 1995) and Parade's player of the year in '95, surprised recruiting experts when he picked Kentucky over Florida, Florida State, Tennessee and several other perennial powers. Then, after joining the Wildcats, Couch was stunned to learn that Kentucky coach Bill Curry was reneging on his recruiting promise to open up the offense. The Wildcats would go with an option attack, for which Couch was unsuited.

Couch spent most of the 1996 season on the sideline—he threw only 84 passes in seven games—while junior Billy Jack Haskins started nine games in a 4-7 season. As much as anything, the decision not to immediately build around Couch led athletic director CM. Newton to announce in mid-season that Curry would be fired after the final game, which turned out to be a 56-10 drubbing by the Manning-led Volunteers.

Couch was so disillusioned by the end of last season that he considered transferring to Tennessee. He reasoned he could learn from Manning while sitting out the 1997 season and be ready to replace him in '98. But when Newton pulled a shocker and named little-known Hal Mumme of Division II Valdosta State to replace Curry, Couch decided to at least listen to the new coach. He also watched tapes of Valdosta State's games and immediately fell in love with the wide-open passing game that Mumme learned primarily from BYU coach Lavell Edwards.

At the same time, when Mumme looked at tapes of Kentucky games, he recognized that Couch was the quarterback of his dreams. He told Haskins that he would have to move to a different position in the spring because Couch was going to be the quarterback. Angrily, Haskins transferred—he's at Rhode Island—and Mumme was criticized by those Kentucky fans who had admired Haskins' grit and felt he at least deserved a chance to compete for the job.

Couch proved that Mumme is no dummy. Getting excellent protection from his offensive line, which yielded only one sack, the 6'5", 215-pound Couch picked apart the Louisville defense, which was ranked fourth in the nation last season, often going to his second, third or even fourth receiver. Kentucky jumped to a 21-0 lead in the first quarter on Couch scoring passes of 16, 16 and 23 yards.

A fourth touchdown pass in the final quarter salted away the win and left Couch, who had another scoring pass called back, one touchdown throw shy of tying Babe Parilli's 47-year-old single-game Kentucky record. "Couch ran that offense to perfection," said Louisville coach Ron Cooper afterward. "We couldn't do anything to pressure him or get him off his game. My hat goes off to Kentucky."

And the Wildcats' hats should go off to Newton for having the guts to hire a Division II coach who's at least smart enough to know a future NFL quarterback when he sees one.
—WILLIAM F. REED

The Price Was Right

Lay off Nebraska, O.K.? The Huskers had originally scheduled a stronger first-game opponent than Akron, which they beat 59-14. According to officials at Nebraska, several years ago Arkansas had agreed to open in Lincoln this season, but the Razorbacks bailed out after they joined the SEC in '92 and went to an eight-game league schedule. Nebraska tried to strike a deal with Cal and Illinois among others to fill the date. None of those possibilities worked out. With each home game worth $3 million, the Corn-huskers had no interest in playing elsewhere. Finally, the Zips agreed to visit for $450,000, their biggest payday of the year. That figure was about $50,000 greater than the sum Arkansas was to have received.

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