'A really bad ending'

The InsideTennessee.com staff made the trip north for the Tennessee football team's regular season finale. Check out this write-up from the editor-in-chief.

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Tennessee coach Derek Dooley spent the 2011 season telling the Big Orange Nation that his Vols were not a good football team. Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium his players emphatically proved his point.

A 10-7 loss to Kentucky ended Tennessee's season at 5-7, ended its bowl hopes and ended a 26-game head-to-head winning streak in the border rivalry. Dooley termed it "a real bad ending to a real bad season."

No wonder. This game had a season's worth of ugly attached to it.

The Vols lost to a team using a wide receiver (Matt Roark) as a shotgun quarterback because its top two QBs were injured. Roark completed just 4 of 6 passes for 15 yards but rushed for 124 yards.

Even with a wide receiver at QB, the Wildcats kept the ball for 35:57 to Tennessee's 24:03.

The Vols managed just 61 net rushing yards against a team ranked 11th among 12 SEC teams in rushing defense.

The Big Orange managed just 276 yards against the SEC's 10th-ranked defense in terms of total yards.

The Vol defense allowed a comically inept Kentucky offense to gain 202 net rushing yards.

Michael Palardy had a field goal blocked for the second week in a row.

Basically, there was one highlight for Tennessee. Rajion Neal caught four passes for 125 yards, including a 53-yard touchdown grab that whittled a 10-0 deficit to 10-7 with 12:52 to play.

Even on his career day, though, Neal had a hand in the loss. With Tennessee down just 3-0 late in the third quarter, he lined up to take a direct snap on second-and-goal at the Kentucky 8-yard line. The snap was high, bouncing off Neal's hands and ultimately being recovered by Kentucky at its 23-yard line. The invigorated Big Blue then launched a 77-yard touchdown drive that proved to be the game winner.

Tyler Bray, showing the effects of a broken thumb that caused him to miss five games, completed just 15 of 38 throws for 215 yards. Some of his passes were so far off-target that he was called for intentional grounding on one pass that he probably tried to complete. Dooley said Bray also battled a virus in recent days.

"The quarterback really struggled – in the first half especially," the coach said. "He was lethargic, he was sick all week. We thought he would be a little better."

Bray's throwing problems were magnified by another awful performance from the ground game … even against a Wildcats' defense known for its generosity.

"Their rush defense isn't worse than our rush offense," Dooley glumly noted.

As bad as the 2011 season was, the Vols hoped to salvage a little something by qualifying for a bowl. The fact they failed in that bid didn't seem to upset Dooley too much.

"You don't always get what you want but a lot of times you get what you deserve," he said. "We're not a good football team, and we've got a lot of work we need to do to be a good football team."

The head man termed Tennessee's first-half offensive performance "miserable," and there was no disputing that. The Vols managed just 129 total yards en route to a 3-0 intermission deficit.

Historically speaking, the game may have been over once the Big Orange went to the break trailing. Dooley's two-year mark at Tennessee now stands 0-14 when his team is tied or behind at halftime.

Except for completions of 44 and 53 yards to Neal, Tennessee's offense was just as stagnant in the second half as it had been in the first.

Dooley, now 11-14 at the UT helm, didn't seem surprised that his team laid an egg in the season finale, noting that inconsistency defined this team.

"We had a lot of youth, a lot of inexperience, a lot of issues on the roster," the head man said. "We just never could really put it together, and the result is a losing season and no bowl bid. We kept searching but nothing seemed to work."

Asked about the end of Tennessee's 26-game mastery of Kentucky, Dooley conceded, "You don't want to see it happen on your watch."

After a 6-7 mark (3-5 SEC) in Year 1 of the Dooley era, many Vol fans hoped to see improvement in Year 2. Instead, the Vols dipped to 5-7 overall (1-7 SEC). The head man tried to show resolve as he discussed the apparent lack of progress.

"It's real disappointing," Dooley said, "but we're going to have to learn from it and begin our climb in the offseason."

That climb should begin immediately. Based on Saturday's performance, there's nowhere to go but up.

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