The Vols' two fourth-down conversions occurred on their only scoring drive of the second half – a 15-play, 80-yard march that featured a two-yard dive by Montario Hardesty on fourth-and-one at the UK 8-yard line and a one-yard scoring dive by LaMarcus Coker on fourth-and-goal.
Tennessee seemed to be clicking early. The Vols struck for 10 first-quarter points – a 24-yard James Wilhoit field goal and a 15-yard touchdown pass from Erik Ainge to Robert Meachem – but managed just seven more points the rest of the game.
"We stopped ourselves," Ainge said. "We did a lot of good things but at critical times some on the team – myself included – did something wrong. We were fortunate to get the win, with as many times as we screwed up today."
Tennessee's 10-0 lead evaporated in the second quarter. Knoxville native Lones Seiber sandwiched field goals of 21 and 20 yards around a five-yard Andre Woodson-to-Rafael Little touchdown pass, giving the Wildcats a 12-10 halftime lead.
After a scoreless third quarter, Coker's fourth-and-goal dive gave Tennessee a 17-12 lead with 14:02 remaining.
"A field goal would've given us the lead," Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer conceded, "but I told the team at halftime that field goals weren't going to win this game. We had to score touchdowns. I wasn't going to lose my nerve on the one-yard line."
Coker's TD put the game in the hands of a Vol defense that surrendered fourth-quarter touchdowns in earlier losses to Florida and LSU. The stop unit came through in the clutch this time, though, repelling two deep penetrations by Kentucky over the game's final 14 minutes..
The first penetration reached Tennessee's 28-yard line, at which point defensive tackle Turk McBride decked Little for a one-yard loss on fourth and two.
"Basically, I had a good read that the guard was going to set outside, so I kind of pinched inside," McBride noted. "I really wasn't supposed to do that but I had a good read, so I went ahead and did it, and made a good play."
Kentucky got the ball back and marched from its 13-yard line to a third-and-goal at the Vol 6 in the final minutes. Two incomplete passes – the latter coming with just 3:04 remaining – enabled Tennessee to stave off the upset bid.
Fulmer saluted John Chavis' troops, noting that it took "a fantastic job by our defense to shut 'em out the second half."
Meanwhile, a Wildcat defense that ranked dead last in all of college football – surrendering 468 yards of total offense per game – limited Tennessee to 96 rushing yards, 240 passing yards and 346 total yards. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say the Vols limited themselves to 346 yards.
As Ainge said: "It wasn't necessarily anything they (Wildcats) were doing on defense as much as it was my eyes being in the wrong spot, or getting pressured and not staying in the pocket, or not being on the same page with the receiver."
Woodson finished 26 of 39 passing for 282 yards for Kentucky, which finishes regular-season play at 7-5 overall and 4-4 in Southeastern Conference play. Little led all rushers with 119 yards on 23 carries.
Ainge completed 19 of 33 for 240 yards to pace Tennessee, which is 9-3 overall and 5-3 in SEC play. Coker paced the ground game with 90 yards on 22 carries. Meachem caught six balls for 116 yards, boosting him to 1,265 yards for the year. That broke UT's single-season record for receiving yards and pushed him past the 2,000-yard mark for his career.
Meachem's big day almost came in a losing cause, however. Tennessee's offense seemed slightly out of sync all day long. Fulmer acknowledged that the Vols didn't show the enthusiasm or precision they had in a 39-10 blowout of Vanderbilt seven days earlier.
"We just didn't seem like we had the energy that we normally play with," the head man said. "Maybe we did too much in practice. But we practiced really well this week. I thought we were as ready as ready could be."