Cats, Vols find motivation to close football season with win

jsmith3@herald-leader.comNovember 23, 2012 

Kentucky head football coach Joker Phillips smiled during the last team practice on campus in Lexington, Ky., on Thursday Nov. 22, 2012. Kentucky's last game with Phillips as head coach is Saturday at Tennessee. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff

  • Tennessee at Kentucky

    When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 30

    TV: ESPNU

    Records: Kentucky 2-9 (0-7 SEC); Tennessee 4-7 (1-6)

How long did the celebration last for Kentucky players last season after they knocked off Tennessee to put an end to the Cats' 26-game losing streak against the Volunteers?

"Weeks," senior offensive lineman Larry Warford said.

"Months and months," sophomore linebacker Bud Dupree corrected. "It really didn't end until this season began."

That's the type of momentum Kentucky could use to end this season, which has featured so few signs of forward progress.

On that front, UK has met its match in Tennessee.

Both teams sit winless at the bottom of the Southeastern Conference standings. If the Vols lose Saturday, it would be the first time in school history that they didn't get a league win.

If that's not plenty of motivation, hearing about being the team that fell to Kentucky — with a wide receiver playing quarterback, no less — for almost an entire year definitely has the Volunteers revved up.

"That's one motivation that we've had since the beginning of the year," UT linebacker Jacques Smith said. "We're definitely going to take it to them this weekend. We're definitely going to hit them in the mouth."

Kentucky offensive coordinator Randy Sanders, a former Tennessee player and coach, expects no less from the Vols.

"I'm sure they've heard a lot about it, starting from the time that game ended all the way up to game time Saturday," he said of the 10-7 loss to UK last season. "So I'm sure we'll get their best effort."

UK's players are expecting that, too.

"I'm sure they're as hungry as we are," said Cats linebacker Avery Williamson. "I'm sure they're hungry to get a win, to get us back from beating them. ... They've got nothing to lose; we've got nothing to lose. ... It's going to be nasty."

Not only is it going to be nasty when the Cats (2-9, 0-7 SEC) meet the Vols (4-7, 0-7), it's going to be downright weird.

Each team has struggled to get anything going this season and both teams' administrations are scouring the country looking for new head coaches.

Tennessee's Derek Dooley and Kentucky's Joker Phillips have been dismissed, the Vols' boss just last Sunday.

He won't be on the Neyland Stadium sideline Saturday (instead, it will be interim head coach Jim Chaney), but Phillips will be trying to get one final win as UK's head coach.

"We definitely have a lot to play for: To send Coach Phillips and these seniors off with a win like this would be huge, something we'd all remember for the rest of our lives," said Williamson, the SEC leader in tackles and a Milan, Tenn., native. "I'm still excited from the game from last year when we beat them. I'm real excited to have the opportunity to go down there and beat them in their own house."

If UK were to beat Tennessee on Saturday, it would be the first time the Cats have bested the Vols twice in a row since 1977.

Sanders, the offensive coordinator, said there might not be a better way to go out.

"Two in a row would be a great way to leave," he said. "Sure would."

But it's going to take a big effort again for Kentucky, especially the defense, which is facing a Tennessee offense that is fourth in the SEC in scoring (36.1 ppg) and has put up 40 points five times.

The Vols' 5,254 yards of offense is second in the league, paced by quarterback Tyler Bray, who has had three 400-plus yard passing games this season. He's 11th in the nation in passing yards with 3,319. His 301 yards a game are second-best in the SEC.

"Shoot, they're one of the better offenses we've faced all year," Cats defensive coordinator Rick Minter said. "Quarterback's played great most of the year. The receivers are big-time guys, they kind of set the tone for this team."

But Kentucky's players knew they'd have to do something special to top Tennessee last season with no healthy true quarterback and few believers left in the stands.

In a game with as strange a set of circumstances as any matchup in the nation this weekend, Kentucky and Tennessee will play for pride, the players said.

"We know they're in the same situation as we are," Warford said. "None of us are going to a bowl game. ... Like us, they're going to come out and play like they have something to prove. It's going to be a real dogfight."

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241.Twitter: @jenheraldleader.Blog: ukfootball.bloginky.com.

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