But this time, like so many times before, the Wildcats still came up short when Tennessee Gerald Riggs Jr. ran 12 yards for the game-winning touchdown with 38 seconds remaining.
"Our guys played a heck of a game, and the wrong team won," Kentucky coach Rich Brooks said after Kentucky's 37-31 loss. "This team wasn't rewarded. They played their hearts out."
The loss put an end to a frustrating 2-9 season and a difficult week for the Wildcats. After meeting with athletic director Mitch Barnhart during the open date leading up to the Tennessee game, Brooks refused to make staff changes to save his job. Then on Monday, offensive coordinator Ron Hudson resigned, effective immediately. During the week and during the game, Brooks and assistants Joker Phillips and Paul Dunn ran the offense together.
A Kentucky offense that entered the game ranked 115th nationally in scoring and total offense (14.2 points and 270 yards per game) responded with one of its best games of the season. With senior Shane Boyd at quarterback, the Wildcat offense put up 24 of Kentucky's 31 points and gained 323 yards against a Tennessee defense that carried the Vols to the SEC Eastern Division championship.
"I really believed," Boyd said, "this time we were going to do it."
Instead, Kentucky had a difficult time moving the ball, earning first downs and rolling time off the clock in the fourth quarter. The Wildcats ran 13 plays in the final quarter and went backwards for a minus-25 yards.
"We've got to learn to finish games," Phillips said. "It's that simple. Nobody gives you anything at this level."
It turned out to be just another painful lesson in a season filled with painful lessons.
"We were this close to doing something that Kentucky hadn't done in 20 years," Brooks said. "That's what's disappointing."
GAME BALL GOES TO: WR Lonnell Dewalt -- A 6-foot-6 true freshman with a knack for blocking kicks, Dewalt blocked a field goal and an extra point against Tennessee, giving him a school-record seven blocked kicks this season. "It's the first time I have ever had a kick blocked in my career," Tennessee kicker James Wilhoit said. "I felt like I hit the ball well all day, but when you have a guy who is 6-feet-8 with a 40-inch vertical ... it was a great individual effort by him."
KEEP AN EYE ON: WR Scott Mitchell -- A junior in his first season with Kentucky, Mitchell finished strong with nine catches for 111 yards, including a 41-yard reception. QUOTE TO NOTE: "Our philosophy all game was to go for the jugular. It was a faith-based philosophy, based on the faith that the players could actually make plays. Not 'We don't have the personnel to do this,' or 'We don't have the personnel to do that.'" -- Kentucky offensive assistant Joker Phillips, one of three coaches helping run the offense and call the plays following last week's resignation by offensive coordinator Ron Hudson.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
LOOKING GOOD: QB Shane Boyd finished a checkered career with one of his best performances, completing 20 of 32 passes for 219 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for another score.
STILL NEEDS SOME WORK: While Tennessee was called for five penalties, Kentucky was flagged for 11 worth 88 yards. "I guess the underdog is supposed to get the penalties," Kentucky coach Rich Brooks said.
ROSTER REPORT: It's been a tough four years for Kentucky's seniors, with three losing seasons, three head coaches and NCAA probation and sanctions for rules violations they had nothing to do with, but those seniors finished strong against Kentucky. In addition to Boyd's performance, DE Vincent "Sweet Pea" Burns, DE Ellery Moore and CB Earven Flowers all played through injuries against Tennessee. "It was important for me to come out and show the younger guys that you can come out and play with pain," Burns said. ... Redshirt freshman Jacob Tamme has spent most of his time at wide receiver, but he lined up at tight end against Tennessee for the first time this season and made an immediate impact by catching his first two career TD catches, a 20-yard score in the first quarter and a 16-yard score in the second.