Every year since 1976 I've seen Kentucky and Tennessee play. Tennessee has won all but four games, including the last 26 in a row after Saturday's 24-14 win over the Wildcats here. This is a Tennessee team that has had three coaches in three years and was 2-6 a month ago. It's a Tennessee team without nearly as much talent as it usually has. Yet it still beat Kentucky despite a nightmarish start.
Any real University of Kentucky football fan knew the start was too good to be true for the Wildcats Even after giving up a 78-yard kickoff return, Kentucky's defense held and somehow Tennessee kicker Daniel Lincoln missed a 28-yard field goal — his first miss of the year.
The Wildcats drove 80 yards in 10 plays to score on Derrick Locke's 17-yard run. After the defense forced another three-and-out, a real rarity this season, the Wildcats drove from the UK 22 to a first down at the 1. However, Locke fumbled an exchange, the Vols recovered in the end zone and what could have been a 14-0 UK lead turned into a 14-7 deficit in nothing flat when the Vols got their passing attack untracked. "This was a rough one," said a dejected Kentucky coach Joker Phillips. "I have never been in a game where I felt as much in control and have a chance to go up by 14 points and how quickly the events changed.
"This football team has got to learn when we get people down, keep them down. We gave them life." Tennessee knows how to keep Kentucky down. And down. And down. Jubilant Tennessee stands chanted, "Twenty-six, twenty-six," just a few feet from the Kentucky sideline as time was running out Saturday.
"That hurt," freshman tight end Tyler Robinson, who had a touchdown catch for UK, said. "It's not a good feeling to have, but what could we do. They were beating us. All we could do was listen." He's right.
Kentucky could have done plenty about it during the game but it lost two fumbles — Locke's second of the season and star Randall Cobb's second of the season — and Hartline threw an interception when receiver Chris Matthews either got confused on the route or gave a poor effort to catch the ball or both. Kentucky also let Tennessee receiver Denarious Moore make catches of 44, 48 and 49 yards and quarterback Tyler Bray to throw for 354 yards.
Throw in another special teams mess — big kickoff return, missed field goal, poor punts and Tennessee running for first down out of punt formation — and it easily added up to another Big Orange debacle for the Wildcats. "This is just ridiculous," UK senior tackle Brad Durham said. "There's no reason for this to keep happening."
But it does.
One play shouldn't change a game, but Locke's fumble drained the momentum and confidence Kentucky had. Now instead of worrying about a better bowl and not going back to Tennessee to play again, the Cats may find themselves going to Birmingham Jan. 8 to play — are you ready — Louisville.
"I don't know what will happen. We will be excited just to play in a bowl game," UK quarterback Mike Hartline, who was 31-for-44 passing for 272 yards and one score, said. "But we should have won this game. We started fast. We had it going. Fumbles happen. They can't ruin your play. "That was probably the best we have started a game except maybe for Louisville or Mississippi. We were flying around, playing with energy and focus. We had a lot of focus and were putting it all together."
So what happened?
"We stopped ourselves," Hartline accurately answered. "We didn't convert third downs. We had negative plays. We had wasted plays. We had turnovers. We did way too many things to help Tennessee."
Maybe it's just a lack of confidence. No one wearing orange doubted that Tennessee would win. Everyone wearing blue had doubts.
"The first half you are thinking we had control of the game. We had the ball for 21 minutes and we are seven points down. That tells you we are turning the ball over and also giving up big plays," Phillips said.
"We got what we wanted to start the game. We played fast. We should have had 14 points in the first quarter, which is what we were striving for. Then we had the turnover and they came down and scored. We have to understand that when we get a team down, we have to take advantage."
Sounds simple, but obviously it has been an impossible lesson for Kentucky to learn when it comes to playing Tennessee.
That's why at age 58, I'll just concede there will not be a time in my lifetime when I write about Kentucky beating Tennessee in football. I'm not brilliant, but after 26 straight Tennessee wins I can figure that out.