KNOXVILLE — Say this for Kentucky: It sure does know how to tease its fans into thinking The Streak might be on the verge of ending.
The Wildcats can line up for what looks like a game-winning field goal.
They can push Tennessee to four overtimes.
Or they can do what they did Saturday at Neyland Stadium: jump all over the Volunteers in the first quarter with a chance to take a 14-0 lead.
But no matter how much Kentucky teases, the result always ends up the same.
The Wildcats fizzled after a rare fast start, done in by turnovers and Tennessee's downfield passing game, and the Vols rode a 354-yard performance by freshman quarterback Tyler Bray to a 24-14 win in front of 101,170.
In addition to qualifying for a bowl, Tennessee (6-6 overall, 3-5 Southeastern Conference) extended its winning streak over Kentucky to 26 games, the longest in the nation against a single opponent.
Kentucky senior running back Derrick Locke was 1 yard away from putting the Cats up by two touchdowns with 22 seconds remaining in the first period, but he didn't get a clean grip on the hand-off from Mike Hartline and fumbled. Tennessee linebacker Nick Reveiz recovered in the end zone, and the Cats' mojo appeared gone after that.
"It was a rough one," UK Coach Joker Phillips said. "I've never been in a game where you felt as if you had as much control of a game, had a chance to go up 14, and how quick things change."
UK's much-maligned defense had all kinds of trouble with Bray and receiver Denarius Moore, who caught seven passes for 205 yards. But the defense did set the tone for UK's early momentum.
After Tennessee's Da'Rick Rogers returned the opening kickoff 78 yards to the UK 17, the Cats held and forced Daniel Lincoln into a 28-yard field-goal attempt. Kentucky dodged a bullet when Lincoln, who was 9-for-9 on the season, misfired to the left at the 13:36 mark.
The Wildcats' offense responded with a 10-play, 80-yard drive capped by a 17-yard Locke touchdown run to give the Cats a 7-0 lead with 9:50 left in the opening period.
The UK defense rose up and forced a three-and-out before Locke's momentum-changing fumble.
Hartline said Locke went wide.
"We definitely needed those points," Hartline said. "That's one thing you can't do down there. Obviously, it was a miscue by Derrick and he went a little wide, but I've got to realize that and pull the ball away and take the sack instead of the turnover. That was a terrible situation for us."
The Vols then all but abandoned their running game, turning the offense over to Bray, Moore and the deep ball. Bray hit Moore on passes of 44 and 48 yards and tied the game at 7 on an 11-yard TD pass to Gerald Jones early in the second quarter.
After Ryan Tydlacka shanked an 18-yard punt, Bray hit Moore with a 49-yard bomb and then came right back to him for a 12-yard scoring pass that put UT up 14-7 with 10:50 left in the half.
But it was hard to put too much first-half blame on the defense considering the offense lost two fumbles (Cobb coughed one up at his own 44 midway through the second quarter) and the special teams' miscues (the shanked punt and Craig McIntosh's missed field goal from 42 yards just before halftime).
"In the first half you think you have control of the football game and you look up and you're down seven points," Phillips said. "That tells you that you've turned it over and given up big plays on defense, and that tells the story of what happened."
The Wildcats came out strong in the second half. They went on an 11-play, 76-yard drive to start the third quarter and tied the game at 14 on Hartline's play-action pass to tight end Tyler Robinson, who grew up just outside Knoxville in nearby Alcoa.
The defense forced a three-and-out on Tennessee's first series of the second half, but the Vols caught the Cats off guard on fourth-and-10 from their own 24 when punter Michael Palardy ran 16 yards for a first down. The Cats avoided any further damage when Mychal Bailey intercepted a Bray pass in the end zone with 5:41 left in the third quarter, but the fake punt cost the Cats valuable time and field position.
"That's like a turnover," Phillips said. "That's one extra possession we didn't get."
The Vols reclaimed the lead on their next possession. Tauren Poole capped a nine-play, 73-yard drive with a 2-yard TD run that made it 21-14 with 50 seconds left in the third.
The Cats came to a crossroads early in the fourth quarter. Facing a fourth-and 2 from the UT 37 with 13 minutes remaining, Phillips elected to punt. Not only did the punt go into the end zone for a touchback, the Vols were able to tack on three insurance points when Lincoln hit a 36-yarder with 9:19 remaining to pad Tennessee's lead to 24-14.
Phillips defended the decision to punt, pointing out that Tennessee had no one back deep to field the punt and that UK had all three of its timeouts.
But the touchback just added one more item to Saturday's long list of special teams gaffes.
"It was not just offense or defense that got us beat, but special teams also," Phillips said.
Prentiss Waggner's interception of Hartline with 4:55 remaining ended any hopes of a Wildcats comeback.
Hartline was 31-for-44 for 272 yards with a touchdown and an interception but wasn't as sharp as he has been most of the season. He overthrew La'Rod King on what would have been a touchdown in the second quarter and also threw behind an open Randall Cobb early in the fourth quarter on a key third down.
Hartline repeated a theme in the post-game news conference that Kentucky has discussed all season: The Cats let one slip away.
"I'm going to tell you that I don't think we were the worst team here," Hartline said. "They just executed and played better."
Phillips refused to compare Saturday's loss to UK's other close calls in the series and during its disappointing 2010 season.
"This is the most bitter because it's the one that's in the present," he said. "They're all bitter, let me tell you that. But this one is the worst because it's the present."