The streak is dead: UK defeats Tennessee

The UK football team defeated Tennessee 10-7 for the first time in 27 years in a game Kentuckians won’t soon forget. On Senior Day in Commonwealth Stadium, the Cats’ sent 20 seniors off in a way that no other senior class in more than a quarter century could claim.

“I was asked earlier about how much it meant to me to break the streak as the head coach,” UK head coach Joker Phillips said. “It doesn’t mean much to me, it doesn’t, to break the streak.

“What means more to me is the joy that those seniors, the memories that those guys will have, that’s what means more to me than anything.”

With rumors swirling throughout Big Blue Nation about Phillips’ job security, and with quarterbacks Maxwell Smith and Morgan Newton recovering from injuries, Phillips went with senior wide receiver Matt Roark as his squad’s starting quarterback against the Volunteers. In the final game of his career, and his first start at quarterback since high school, Roark surprised home fans and the Tennessee defense by finishing 4-6 passing for 15 yards, with an additional 24 runs for 124 yards.

“How many — if we lined up the last 26 years — how many quarterbacks have we had, probably 15?” Phillips said. “Who would pick out Matt Roark as the guy who broke the streak?”

Roark, who was the subject of criticism by the fan base throughout the first half of the season after a slew of dropped passes, did not find out officially that he would be the team’s starting quarterback until Tuesday. Everyone outside of the program found out on UK’s first offensive play.

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But UK passing game coordinator Tee Martin, Roark’s quarterback coach in high school, said he had all the faith in the world in the senior to lead a successful offense.

“I was probably the only one of the offensive staff that felt like I knew what to expect,” Martin said. “I’ve seen the guy, we went undefeated together, me and Matt Roark at quarterback (at North Cobb High School in Acworth, Ga.), so I kinda knew what he would do. I’m just happy for him.”

Running the offense mostly out of the pistol formation, meaning Roark lined up with space between himself and the center, but still with a running back behind him, the senior wide receiver/quarterback hybrid moved the UK offense mostly through option reads in the running game. UK junior tailback CoShik Williams added to Roark’s 124 rushing yards with 68 of his own and the Cats’ lone touchdown of the afternoon early in the fourth quarter.

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The passing game for UK was virtually non-existent. After a 15-yard completion from Roark to tight end Nick Melillo for 15 yards on UK’s opening drive, Roark was 3-5 for 0 net yards the remainder of the game.

But despite an inconsistent and unconventional offense, the Cats’ defense rose to the occasion and played their second dominating performance in two weeks against the Volunteers. UK was led by senior linebackers Danny Trevathan and Winston Guy, who combined for 22 tackles in the final game of their careers.

The Cats’ defense held Tennessee to just 276 total yards, limited quarterback Tyler Bray to a sub-par 15-38 passing and allowed the Volunteers to post just seven points on the scoreboard all afternoon.

“Ending a curse that’s been an albatross around this program for a quarter of a century — think about that,” co-defensive coordinator Rick Minter said. “A quarter of a century, that’s a long time.”

With two interceptions and a fumble recovery on the day, the UK defense once again won the turnover battle, which under Phillips and Minter usually means a victory.

Likewise, after heading into the locker room with a 3-0 halftime lead, UK dropped Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley’s record when trailing at halftime to 0-14. After the game, Dooley was noticeably upset in the loss.

“Real bad ending to a real bad season,” Dooley said. “It’s hard to say much more than that; our biggest fears were realized.”

But after it was all set and done, only one number  was on the minds of the Cats in the locker room — 26. The number of consecutive years Tennessee had defeated UK. The number of different teams that had put on the blue and white and come together with the common goal of beating their rival just across state lines, only to fail.

For the seniors, it was a happy ending to a tumultuous final chapter in their UK careers.

“We knew this was the last time we were going to be together, the last time we were going to play in front of our fans at Commonwealth Stadium,” senior linebacker Ronnie Sneed said, “and we wanted to go out with a bang.”

“It’s been 26 years. That’s too long for anything,” Trevathan added. “I think we played our hearts out today. I feel like we played one of our best games.”

And for Roark — the most unlikely of heroes, the wide receiver who couldn’t catch turned quarterback who broke the streak — the win is a moment he will never forget.

“I don’t think I’m going to think about any bad things that happened to me in the past,” Roark said. “This was my last game, this was my last memory and it’s going to be in my head the rest of my life.”