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In his first year in charge of his alma mater, UK head coach Joker Phillips, who began his tenure with a win over bitter rival Louisville, couldn’t muster the same result in UK’s regular season finale. The rival Tennessee Volunteers extended the nation’s longest current winning streak of one team versus another with a 24-14 win over UK — their 26th consecutive victory over the Cats.
All week, UK players and coaches privately emphasized the number 517: presumably the number of points the Tennessee Volunteers (6-6, 3-5 Southeastern Conference) had outscored the Cats (6-6, 2-6 SEC) during the streak. On Saturday, the only numbers that mattered to Phillips and his players were those in the final score, which Phillips said concluded “a season of missed opportunities.”
“I’ve never been in a game where you felt you had as much as control of the game, going for a chance to go up 14, but how quickly events change,” said Phillips, whose team also lost close SEC affairs to Ole Miss, Auburn, Georgia and Mississippi State this season. “What we did is give those guys a chance. We gave them life with our exchange problems at the goal line with a chance to go up 14, and then we let them get behind us numerous times with big plays in the passing game.”
The game was a topsy-turvy affair with major momentum shifts throughout, particularly in the first half.
Tennessee freshman wide receiver Da’Rick Rogers opened the game with a 78-yard kickoff return to put the Vols in prime scoring position, though the Vols failed to capitalize on the chance for early points after missing a 28-yard field goal attempt wide left.
UK, which has been plagued by slow starts all year, responded by marching 80 yards in 10 plays on its opening drive, capped by a 17-yard touchdown run by senior tailback Derrick Locke.
On the Cats’ ensuing possession, they drove the ball to the Tennessee 1-yard line only to see Locke fumble the ball into the end zone and the ball recovered by Vols senior linebacker Nick Reveiz.
“As far as momentum, it hurt,” senior quarterback Mike Hartline said. “We definitely needed those points, and that’s just one thing you can’t do down there.”
The momentum pendulum swung in favor of the Vols and gave hope to the 101,170 fans in Neyland Stadium that history might yet repeat itself; the Vols’ next two possessions showcased an aerial attack by freshman quarterback Tyler Bray, who completed four pass plays of 10-plus yards, including 11- and 12-yard touchdown passes to senior receivers Gerald Jones and Denarius Moore, respectively.
Despite the Vols having negative seven rushing yards and nine minutes of possession at halftime, they led by a touchdown.
“This is a tough place to play when the momentum gets on their side and the fans get into it,” UK wide receivers coach and former Volunteer quarterback Tee Martin said. “I felt it a little bit early in the game.”
On the opening drive of the second half, UK completed an 11-play, 76-yard drive capped by a two-yard touchdown pass to Tennessee native and freshman tight end Tyler Robinson to knot the game at 14.
Following a three-and-out by the UK defense on the Vols’ opening drive of the second half, momentum had appeared to shift in favor of UK once again, but the Vols faked a punt deep in their own territory on fourth down, converted the first down and later drove the ball into UK territory quelling the Cats’ momentum.
The UK offense never replicated the same rhythm of its second-half opening drive afterward, and the Vols took the lead by virtue of a 2-yard touchdown run by junior tailback Tauren Poole late in the third quarter. The Vols later tacked on a 36-yard field goal in the last stanza.
Though the Cats had their opportunities to seize the game, execution or lack thereof, was what coaches and players pointed to as the deciding factor.
“I legitimately think two teams beat us (this season) and we lost the rest of them,” Martin said. “If we play good, it’s not even close, but we didn’t, and they won so that’s it.”
Tennessee leads the series 74-23-9, including a 39-10-6 mark in Knoxville … With 13 catches, UK junior wide receiver Randall Cobb recorded the second-most receptions in UK single-game history, three shy of the school record (16 by Craig Yeast vs. Vanderbilt in 1998) … Hartline’s 3,178 passing yards in 2010 ranks seventh all-time in UK single-season history … Hartline now owns 5,680 career passing yards to move past Bill Ransdell for fourth place on the UK career passing yardage list … Junior linebacker Danny Trevathan recorded a team-best 10 tackles in the game, his ninth game leading UK in tackles this season.
Follow Nick on Twitter @KernelCraddock.