UT 17, UK 12, Catch 22

David Cutcliffe found himself in a Catch 22 against Kentucky. Tennessee's offensive coordinator usually likes to grind out long scoring drives. But against the Wildcats, that would limit the number of possessions for each team, which helps the underdog.

``I was really hoping we'd make some big plays and get some chunks of yardage,'' Cutcliffe said after the Vols scored a harder-than-expected 17-12 victory in the regular-season finale for both teams.

``I thought going into the game we could and we would. But we didn't. The first half, we only had three real possessions. The second half, we didn't play well and just never got untracked.''

Tennessee had just six possessions in which it tried to score. The Vols ran out the clock to end the game on possession seven.

The other was Tennessee just didn't play with much passion. Coach Phillip Fulmer said the Vols didn't play with energy. Cutcliffe said they weren't motivated.

``I didn't think there was electric energy like there has been,'' Cutcliffe said. ``At halftime, I was concerned. … A player said when we went up, he thought it would be ho hum. It was anything but.''

It never ceases to amaze me that when a team gets 12 guaranteed chances a year to play a game, inevitably, it isn't ready for at least three or four. That was the case for Tennessee on Saturday.

Yet, the sign of a good team is to win when you're not playing your best.

Tennessee did that three times this year – against Air Force, Alabama and Kentucky. On one other occasion, the Vols found a way to win – at South Carolina.

``That's a tribute to the seniors and to the team being hungry,'' Cutcliffe said. ``In spring practice, we weren't great, but we kept getting better. Same thing in two-a-days.''

As a coach, Cutcliffe said, your hope is that the seniors show the underclassmen how it's done, and that tradition is passed along each year. Tennessee has won its share of close games through the years, the 2005 season notwithstanding.

Cutcliffe hopes that continues, because he's convinced you won't record many blowouts in the SEC, not like Tennessee and Florida were able to do in the 1990s.

``In this league,'' Cutcliffe said, ``you better figure out how to win some tough, close games because that is the league now. The league is really, really good. It's not easy every week. When we've got five more points than they do, I'm happy.''

Indeed, Tennessee won just one SEC game by more than eight points. Florida won just one SEC game by more than two touchdowns. Arkansas beat Alabama in overtime, Vanderbilt by two points and South Carolina by six. LSU needed overtime to beat 4-7 Ole Miss. Georgia beat South Carolina and Auburn by at least 18 points yet lost to Vanderbilt and Kentucky. Alabama went 2-6 in the SEC, beating Vanderbilt and Ole Miss each by a field goal.

The SEC is that topsy-turvy. That also means you have to be well coached and make plays in the clutch.

Tennessee's defense made enough plays in the clutch to secure the victory over the hungry Wildcats. Kentucky outgained UT 410 yards to 336 and mounted three drives of at least 15 plays. But the Cats went 0-for-3 on fourth downs, and missed a 33-yard field goal and an extra point.

Defensive coordinator John Chavis was frustrated by the time-consuming drives, but he also was proud that his tired and injury riddled defense kept Kentucky out of the end zone in the final minutes.

``Our kids hung in there and fought,'' Chavis said.

Kentucky moved the ball well on UT because it has talented skill players and a quarterback that's playing really well, Chavis said.

``They do a good job mixing it up and calling plays,'' Chavis said. ``One of our goals is not to have 10-play drives. But the thing we did good was get them stopped.''

Kentucky threw some screens at Tennessee, but not as many as Chavis had anticipated. He said UK threw 14 screens the week before but only five or six against UT, and just one in the first half.

``I guess we didn't rush the passer well enough for them to have to throw the screens,'' Chavis said of a defense that recorded just one sack, bringing the season total to 17 – the lowest total in Chavis' 12 years as a coordinator.

Considering UT lost arguably its two best players for the season in September – tackle Justin Harrell and cornerback Inky Johnson – Chavis was asked if he felt his unit survived.

``I don't want to say it that way – that we've been able to survive,'' Chavis said. ``Our kids have battled. I don't want to say we're not as talented as we've been in some places. But we don't have the depth. We've got kids playing more snaps than they've ever played.

``I want them to hear that I feel good about their effort. But I don't like being in those situations (of allowing long drives). You'd like to get people stopped quicker and get off the field. That's been a trademark we've been able to do as well as anybody in the country.''

But not this season. Still, the Vols were able to secure nine wins, losing to three teams better than UT.

In that respect, Tennessee survived.

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