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KENTUCKY LETS COUCH OFF THE BENCH, AND HE DELIVERS THE HUSKERS' SCHEDULING WOES A REALITY CHECK IN FLORIDA

Sept. 08, 1997
Sept. 08, 1997

Table of Contents
Sept. 8, 1997

Faces In The Crowd

KENTUCKY LETS COUCH OFF THE BENCH, AND HE DELIVERS THE HUSKERS' SCHEDULING WOES A REALITY CHECK IN FLORIDA

WILDCAT STRIKE

This is an article from the Sept. 8, 1997 issue Original Layout

Heisman Trophy favorite Peyton Manning of Tennessee got his
bandwagon rolling 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 have 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 the 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 C.M. Newton to announce in midseason 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 Cornhuskers 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.

Nebraska faced an even tougher juggling act: In April 1996
Northern Illinois bought its way out of a contract to play the
Huskers in Lincoln on Sept. 13 of this year. That's the
equivalent of backing out of a prom date 10 minutes before the
dance. It took six months for the Huskers to find a replacement:
Central Florida, which will receive its biggest payout of the
season, $475,000--or about $50,000 more than Northern Illinois
was to get--for making the trip.

ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT

Here's a piece of advice for spoiled Florida fans who booed
sophomore quarterback Doug Johnson after he nearly threw a
fourth interception in the Gators' desultory 21-6 season-opening
victory over Southern Mississippi in Gainesville: Check your
reality gauges. Danny Wuerffel is gone. Receivers Ike Hilliard
and Reidel Anthony are gone. Your team may be defending its
first national championship, but for all practical purposes
Florida is starting from scratch.

Johnson, the 6'2", 212-pound Gainesville native who was named
the successor to Heisman Trophy winner Wuerffel at the end of
spring practice, was scarcely nervous at the prospect of his
first start. Cut him open and he would bleed self-confidence. He
was, in fact, too juiced. His first pass was a streak that
sailed far past speedy junior wideout Jacquez Green. "And I'm
almost impossible to overthrow," said Green.

Johnson played erratically, at times showing the brilliant arm
that made him a prize recruit a year ago (case in point: his
18-yard, far-hash-to-opposite-sideline touchdown rope to Green
with 1:33 left in the first half) and at times missing badly. He
completed 17 of 34 passes for 231 yards and two touchdowns, plus
those three interceptions. That fourth interception should have
occurred when Johnson missed sophomore wideout Jamie Richardson
on a sideline curl and hit Southern Mississippi cornerback
Deshone Mallard in the chest. Mallard dropped the gift, but a
small chorus of boos drifted down.

Those critics should have taken into account that Johnson was
playing behind a line thinned by the absence of tackle Zach
Piller (ankle injury) and guard Ryan Kalich (one-game
suspension) and against a solid team that went 8-3 a year ago.
Southern Mississippi was arguably the toughest opening-day
opponent in Florida coach Steve Spurrier's eight seasons. Also,
Johnson had been throwing a football for only a month or so,
since finishing six weeks of minor league baseball. (He hit .201
as a third baseman for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' rookie league
affiliate in Princeton, W.Va.) "Baseball has nothing to do with
this," said Johnson after the game. Still, while Johnson was
taking grounders, Tennessee's Peyton Manning and most other
major-college quarterbacks were throwing to wideouts in
"voluntary" workouts. Moreover, Johnson's teammates allowed him
to be sacked three times.

Most important for Johnson was that he had finally stepped in
for Wuerffel. "I don't have to spend any more time wondering
what it's going to be like to run out there and play," Johnson
said. "I've been doing that since last spring. Things happened a
little faster during the game than I thought they would, but I
played about as I expected. Now I know what I have to do. I'll
get better."

He shrugged, cognizant that Manning comes to Florida Field on
Sept. 20. "We've got two weeks," he said. --TIM LAYDEN

AT HOME IN I-A

To the skeptics who questioned whether Marshall's Thundering
Herd would be able to keep up with the thoroughbreds after
moving up from Division I-AA, wonder no more. Marshall ran up
381 yards of total offense against a West Virginia team that led
the nation in total defense (217.5 yards per game) a year ago.
The Herd also held a 31-28 lead with 12 minutes to go, thanks in
large part to a pair of touchdown catches by Randy Moss (SI,
Aug. 25), who finished with seven receptions for 85 yards. Had
it not been for two late interceptions, which led to a 42-31
defeat, Marshall, last year's I-AA champion, might have extended
its winning streak to 16 games.

"We ran out of gas a little bit," said coach Bobby Pruett. "West
Virginia's depth was a major factor in the game." That won't be
the case in the Mid-American Conference. Inviting Marshall to
join the MAC is akin to asking the Atlanta Braves to join the
International League. The Herd should dominate immediately and
for years to come.

EXTRA POINTS

T-shirts of the week: HOUSTON, YOU HAVE A PROBLEM, worn by
Alabama fans during the Tide's victory over the Cougars in
Birmingham, and I AM AND WILL ALWAYS BE A REDSKIN, worn by a
Miami of Ohio fan unhappy with his team's new, politically
correct nickname. The RedHawks beat Ball State 27-10....
Conference USA, 4-4 against the SEC last season, went 0-4
against that league last Saturday and has four matchups
remaining. Best chance for a victory: Ole Miss at Tulane on Nov.
15.... Colorado State, 104th in Division I-A defense last
season, held Nevada to 257 total yards in a 45-13 victory at
Fort Collins, Colo. The Wolf Pack led the nation in total
offense a year ago with 527.2 yards per game.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Couch's 398 yards through the air were the most ever by a Wildcats quarterback. [Tim Couch and others in game]COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER [Mike Dubose]COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS This Moss TD grab showed he can scale Division I-A heights. [Randy Moss and other in game]

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. Yards TDs Int. Result
-Att.

1990 Ty Detmer, BYU 33-46 387 1 2 Beat Texas-El Paso 30-10

1992 Gino Torretta, 31-51 433 2 1 Beat Iowa 24-7
Miami

1993 Charlie Ward, 16-26 194 0 0 Beat Kansas 42-0
Florida State

1996 Danny Wuerffel, 15-28 224 1 0 Beat SW Louisiana 55-21
Florida

1997 Peyton Manning, 26-38 310 5 1 Beat Texas Tech 52-17
Tennessee

LOOKING AHEAD

AUBURN AT VIRGINIA, SEPT. 4
The Cavaliers' defense, which is missing four starters who were
taken in the first five rounds of last spring's NFL draft, is
vulnerable. The Tigers have a man who figures to exploit that
weakness: quarterback Dameyune Craig, who threw for 16 TDs and
ran for eight more last fall.

GEORGIA TECH AT NOTRE DAME, SEPT. 6
The Bob Davie Era begins with the Irish still short of speed at
wide receiver, but expect Notre Dame quarterback Ron Powlus to
take advantage of an inexperienced Yellow Jackets secondary and
prove that Lou Holtz was running the wrong offense. The Irish
threw the ball only 31% of the time under Holtz last season.

WASHINGTON AT BYU, SEPT. 6
In 1990, defending national champion Miami lost its opener in
Provo. Last fall, top 15 pick Texas A&M never recovered from a
season-opening setback at BYU. The Huskies have several of the
best players in the Pac-10 (linebacker Jason Chorak, quarterback
Brock Huard and tailback Rashaan Shehee), but is Washington good
enough to overcome the Cougars' jinx? Yep.

TENNESSEE AT UCLA, SEPT. 6
Washington State quarterback Ryan Leaf set the bar at 381 yards
and three touchdowns passing in a 37-34 win over the Bruins last
Saturday. Now Peyton Manning takes his turn. UCLA's best chance
for victory: Give the ball to tailback Skip Hicks (190 yards and
four touchdowns rushing against the Cougars) and hope he can
keep Manning on the sideline.

FLORIDA STATE AT USC, SEPT. 6

The Trojans don't match up against the Seminoles at several
positions. One exception: Southern Cal cornerback Daylon
McCutcheon versus Florida State wideout E.G. Green, in the
showdown of the day. The passing game could be crucial to
quarterback Thad Busby and the Seminoles, who should win, even
though they don't have a proven tailback to replace Warrick
Dunn. --I.M.

WINNERS

1. MIKE O'CAIN The N.C. State coach, winner of the preseason hot
seat award, showed guts in going for a two-point conversion in a
32-31 overtime upset of Syracuse. "We made the decision to go
for the win two plays before we scored," says O'Cain, adding he
would've stuck with the plan even if Syracuse had called a
timeout.

2. PEERLESS PRICE Four months after breaking his ankle in
Tennessee's spring game--and one month before he was originally
expected to return to action--the Vols' wide receiver caught two
passes for 22 yards and a touchdown in a 52-17 victory over
Texas Tech.

3. PATRICK BROWN The Kansas linebacker shares the Big 12 scoring
lead with four Nebraska offensive backs and Oklahoma State
tailback Nathan Simmons after returning two interceptions for
TDs in a 24-0 win over Alabama-Birmingham.

& LOSERS

1. UCLA The Bruins moved their game against Washington State
from Nov. 8 to last Saturday to get a week off before closing
the season against Washington and Southern Cal. After losing to
the Cougars, and with games against Tennessee (home) and Texas
(away) coming up, UCLA also gave itself a good chance at an 0-3
start.

2. DAMEYUNE CRAIG The Auburn quarterback threw for 2,296 yards
and had the ninth-best efficiency rating among junior
signal-callers last fall. But he's not among the 17 nominees for
the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, given to the top senior
quarterback.

3. DAUNTE CULPEPPER The Central Florida quarterback fumbled on a
two-point conversion attempt in overtime, costing the Golden
Knights a possible upset of Mississippi, which won 24-23. --I.M.

Ivan Maisel's college football reports also appear at
www.cnnsi.com