Vols make it 26 straight

Tennessee's mind-boggling mastery of Kentucky just got a little more mind-boggling.

The Wildcats appeared all set to end their 25-game losing streak in the series Saturday at Neyland Stadium. Already leading 7-0, they achieved a first-and-goal at the Vol 1-yard line late in the first quarter. A fumbled hand-off was recovered in the end zone by the Big Orange, however, precipitating a 14-point swing that enabled Tennessee to claim the momentum and ultimately win the game 24-14.

The fumbled hand-off between Kentucky quarterback Mike Hartline and Derrick Locke was recovered by Vol linebacker Nick Reveiz. Six plays later, instead of being down 14-0, Tennessee was tied at 7-7.

"That was huge," Vol head man Derek Dooley said. "I was feeling like 'Is there any way we can stop 'em?' It looked like the first 25 plays of the game we might've won two of 'em. They (UK offensive players) were on schedule every play.... You have to just keep sawing and eventually it'll start turning your way. That was a big break for us."

Tennessee's 26-game winning streak in the series may be a big deal to the players and the fans but the head man couldn't care less.

"The previous 25 didn't help us win today," Dooley said. "I believe that. I'm just glad that, in my first year, we didn't snap that thing ... because nobody would've been happy."

Instead, everybody in Big Orange Country is happy. The victory gives Tennessee a four-game November winning streak, a 6-6 overall record and bowl eligibility. The Vols appear headed for either the Music City Bowl Dec. 30 in Nashville or the Liberty Bowl Dec. 31 in Memphis.

Dooley said a bowl bid represents "a baseline standard" at Tennessee, adding: "It's a great reward for the players. It's very important in our first year for recruits to see that Tennessee does not stay down long. There's too much here, too much history, too many resources. I hope they (prospects) see this as a real positive step for the program.

"And, of course, it's like another spring practice for our young players. And God knows we need it."

Tennessee's 3-5 conference mark ties the Vols with Georgia and Kentucky for third place in the SEC East. That's no small feat for a team given up for dead when it limped out of October with a 2-6 overall record and an 0-5 SEC mark.

"I said, 'If you trust the process, the results will come,' and our guys trusted the process," Dooley said. "I'm one of 200 people in our organization that made this happen. I couldn't have done it without the players' commitment, without the coaches doing a great job.

"The most important thing was: I couldn't have done it if, at 2-6, we had anybody starting to flinch and feel doubts. But we didn't. They just stayed the course."

None of Tennessee's 26 consecutive wins vs. Kentucky was much more bizarre than this one. Da' Rick Rogers returned the opening kickoff 79 yards to Kentucky's 17-yard line but the Vols squandered the scoring opportunity when Denarius Moore bobbled what should've been a third-down touchdown pass from Tyler Bray, then Daniel Lincoln missed a 28-yard field goal.

Moore's bobble was his only mistake in an otherwise incredible performance. He wound up catching seven passes for 205 yards. And Lincoln's miss was his first after connecting on his first nine of the season.

The bizarre stuff was just beginning, however. Kentucky zoomed 80 yards in 10 plays - Locke bolting 17 yards for the score - to go up 7-0. After a three-and-out by Tennessee, the Cats marched 77 yards in 15 plays only to fumble into the end zone from the Vol 1-yard line.

Given this reprieve, the Vol offense finally came to life. A six-play, 80-yard drive ended with a 44-yard bomb from Tyler Bray to Denarius Moore and an 11-yard TD strike from Bray to Gerald Jones.

Tennessee kept the momentum on its next possession, going 61 yards in two plays. Bray hit Moore for 49 yards, then found him on a 12-yard fade route as the Vols surged in front 14-7.

The Vols appeared ready to blow the game open on their next possession when Bray found Moore for a gain of 48 to the UK 24-yard line. A holding penalty and a sack short-circuited the drive, however.

The two teams then swapped turnovers. Kentucky's star player, Randall Cobb, coughed up a fumble at the Big Blue 44-yard line. On the first play of Tennessee's possession, however, Bray threw a pass that was intercepted by Winston Guy at the UK 4-yard line.

Kentucky came off its goal line with a vengeance, marching to the Vol 24-yard line in 14 plays only to have Craig McIntosh miss a 42-yard field goal.

The halftime stat sheet reflected the bizarre nature of the game. Kentucky had 18 first downs to Tennessee's 8, 108 rushing yards to Tennessee's minus-7 and 21:21 of possession time to Tennessee's 8:39. But the Vols still had a 14-7 lead.

Kentucky took the second-half kickoff and marched 76 yards in 11 plays - Hartline hitting Tyler Robinson with a two-yard touchdown pass to tie the score at 14.

The Wildcats had the momentum but Dooley had a trick up his sleeve. On fourth-and-10 at the Vol 24, he called a fake punt, giving freshman Michael Palardy a pass/run option. Palardy rambled 16 yards for a first down and Tennessee kept the ball for seven more plays, advancing to the UK 6-yard line only to see Bray throw a pass that Kentucky's Mychal Bailey intercepted in the end zone.

Tennessee's defense got a stop at this point, and the offense went 73 yards in nine plays. Tauren Poole's two-yard plunge produced a 21-14 lead with 50 seconds left in the third quarter.

The Vols padded the lead to 24-14 on their next possession, Lincoln hitting a 36-yard field goal with 9:19 to play.

A sack by Tennessee tackle Joseph Ayres thwarted Kentucky's next drive and an interception by Vol cornerback Prentiss Waggner provided the kill shot with 4:55 to play. Tennessee ran out the clock to seal the win.

"That was huge," Dooley said of Waggner's interception. "There was still plenty of time for that (UK) offense to score."

Bray finished 20 of 38 for 354 yards and two touchdowns. Moore wasn't the only receiver to enjoy a big day. Jones added 6 catches for 77 yards and tight end Luke Stocker added 5 for 55. Poole finished with 59 yards on 17 carries.

Hartline, the SEC's second-ranked passer, completed 31 of 44 attempts for 272 yards. Cobb, who grew up 15 minutes from the UT campus in nearby Alcoa, caught 13 balls for 116 yards. Lock finished with 97 yards on 24 rushes.

Dooley was clearly pleased with the heart and determination his team showed throughout an up-and-down regular season.

"When we're sitting there at 2-6, people are talking about us being the worst football team in Tennessee history," he said. "But nobody in the organization flinched, and I'm real proud of 'em for that.

"They never got affected by the results. We kept improving each week. We played one heck of a football team out there today and we played one heck of a football game."

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