On Senior Day in Knoxville, 101,170 fans showed up, most of them wearing orange, to say a final farewell and to see if the Tennessee Volunteers (6-6, 3-5 SEC) could beat the Kentucky Wildcats (6-6, 2-6 SEC) for the twenty sixth straight time on their way to becoming bowl eligible.
The contest also featured a battle of first-year SEC head coaches, Derek Dooley of Tennessee and Joker Phillips of Kentucky.
Kentucky came in having already achieved the six wins usually necessary for bowl eligibility and the Vols were looking to do the same with a win on Saturday.
Many of the fans in attendance weren't even born the last time that Kentucky walked away with a win over Tennessee on the gridiron.
Tennessee entered the game with the nation's longest current winning streak over an annual opponent with twenty five consecutive wins over the Wildcats dating back to 1984.
You remember 1984, right? No, no, not the Orwell book they made you read in high school, the year!
Ronald Reagan was POTUS.
The Apple Macintosh was introduced.
Vanessa Williams was forced to resign her Miss America title in the midst of scandal.
Katy Perry and Brady Quinn were born.
The Cosby Show debuted on NBC.
The Raiders were the Superbowl Champions.
Prince was on top of the music world while some chick called Madonna began to emerge on the scene and everyone watched MTV for the videos!
My oh my, how the world has changed in the last 25 years.
Makes you feel kind of old, huh?
Well that's just how long it's been.
Would the Vols keep the streak alive?
As the old saying goes, "the more things change, the more they stay the same," at least in the Tennessee-Kentucky football rivalry. And yes, it's still a rivalry, even after more than a quarter-century of bluegrass blues.
The game began with a bang as Da'Rick Rogers returned the opening kickoff 78 yards to the Kentucky 17 yard line. The Vols stalled out at the 10 and Daniel Lincoln attempted a 28 yard field goal that sailed wide to the left.
The Wildcats took over and promptly drove 80 yards for a score when Derek Locke broke free and rambled in from 17 yards out, giving Kentucky an early 7-0 lead.
The streak looked to be on shaky ground after the Vols went three-and-out on their next offensive series and Kentucky began methodically pushing their way towards the north end zone again. But on first-and-goal from the one-yard-line Tennessee got the break they needed when Locke failed to get the hand-off cleanly and fumbled into the checkerboards where senior Nick Reveiz alertly recovered.
If the last twenty six years of futility for Kentucky in this series can be summed up in one play, that play was it.
Tennessee would begin to assert themselves in the second quarter when Tyler "Big Play" Bray and Denarius Moore would put on a quarterback-to-receiver clinic. The Bray-to-Moore offense connected for pass plays of 12, 44, 48, and 49 yards. 153 yards for D-Moore in one quarter! Moore would finish the day with seven catches for 205 yards, becoming the first receiver in Tennessee history with two 200 plus receiving yard games in a season.
The Vols knotted the score at seven all when Bray found senior Gerald Jones for an 11 yard scoring pass early in the quarter. The touchdown strike to Jones capped a six play 80 yard drive.
On Tennessee's next possession, Bray and Moore went right back to work. This time connecting for a 49 yard bomb that set the Vols up at the Kentucky 12 yard line. The next play Bray found Moore, yet again, this time in the end zone to give the Vols a 14-7 lead. It would remain that way as the teams went to the half.
Kentucky had dominated the first half in total offense, time of possession, and rushing, yet trailed 14-7.
The Wildcats wasted little time in the third quarter as quarterback Mike Hartline found Knoxville native Tyler Robinson from two yards out in the end zone to tie the game at 14.
The Vols took the ensuing kickoff and promptly went three-and-out, facing a fourth-and-ten at their own 25 yard line. That's when Coach Dooley made the decision that no one saw coming. The Vol's punter, Michael Palardy, on a fake, ran 16 yards for a first down to keep the drive alive and more importantly, keep the ball away from Hartline and company who clearly had held the momentum. The play seemed to break Kentucky's back as they would not cross the goal line again.
It would remain tied until late in the third quarter, when Tauren Poole busted through the line for a two yard touchdown run to give the Vols a 21-14 advantage as the fourth quarter was set to unfold.
Many had thought this game would be a shootout, but the fourth quarter saw only a 36 yard field goal by Tennessee's Lincoln to give the Vols a ten point lead and what would turn out to be the final score, 24-14.
Final Score: Tennessee 24 Kentucky 14
For Kentucky it was an all too familiar scene.
Earlier in the week, Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips had t-shirts printed up with the number 517 on the front as a reminder to his players of the point differential between the two programs over the 25 year history of the streak. It was meant to motivate his team but those shirts are now on clearance and the 2011 shirts should be out before Christmas, only these shirts are orange and now have the number 527 on the chest.
As a friend continued to point out to me all week, "they're still Kentucky."
Tennessee improves to 74-23-9 all-time versus Kentucky with the victory.
The Vols are 74-12 in November since 1990.
The win evens the Vols record at 6-6 overall and gains them bowl eligibility. A source close to the program said after the game that it would almost assuredly be the Music City Bowl in Nashville on December 30th. No official word has been given but tickets are on sale.
Tennessee has now won four straight since Bray became the starter at quarterback. The win was also the third straight SEC victory.
For the game, Bray completed 20-of-38 for 354 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions.
Tauren Poole rushed for 59 yards on 17 carries and now needs only 6 yards in the bowl game to reach 1000 yards for the season.
Kentucky also closes the season with a record of 6-6 and awaits their bowl invite.
Mike Hartline completed 31-of-44 for 272 yards, a touchdown, and an interception.
Derek Locke ran for 97 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries.
Former Knoxville area high school star Randall Cobb caught 13 passes for 116 yards in his last game in Knoxville.
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