Date published: Sunday, November 28, 2004
KNOXVILLE -- The scenario yesterday went as follows:
Kentucky 31, Tennessee 29, three minutes and 31 seconds on the Neyland Stadium clock, Tennessee with the ball on its own 40-yard line.
Considering the fact that UK hadn't beaten the Vols in 20 years, and the fact that Tennessee's offense had been doing whatever it wanted against the Kentucky defense, it didn't appear the Cats had much hope of stopping the Volunteers from taking the lead.But Kentucky defensive coordinator Mike Archer and the rest of the Wildcats were hanging their collective hat on what has been one of UK's best lines of defense all season: the blocked kick.
Freshman Lonnell Dewalt had already blocked an extra point and field-goal attempt by Tennessee's James Wilhoit, his sixth and seventh blocked kicks of the year. And UK figured that if it at least forced the Vols into trying a game-winning field goal, Dewalt stood a good chance to get No. 8, which would have resulted in a landmark victory for head coach Rich Brooks and his staff.
The 6-foot-6 Dewalt never got the chance.
Instead of forcing Tennessee to kick for the win, the UK defense allowed the Vols to march 60 yards in eight plays, a drive capped by Gerald Riggs' 12-yard TD run with 38 seconds remaining. Cedric Houston's two-point conversion run put the finishing touches on Tennessee's 37-31 win over UK before a nervous crowd of 102,453.
"I just knew we'd block the field goal if we could have just made them kick it," said redshirt freshman defensive end Ricky Abren, who scored on a 6-yard interception return in the second quarter.
"I really believed that we could block the field goal," Archer said. "That was (Tennessee's) last resort, to kick the field goal. They were going for the end zone, and we knew that."
They knew it but still could not stop it. Tennessee quarterback Rick Clausen started the drive by hitting C.J. Fayton for 15 yards to the Kentucky 45. Clausen found Fayton again for a 7-yard gain on a third-and-5 play to the UK 33.
Dewalt's blocks appeared to get in Tennessee's heads earlier in the fourth quarter. Trailing 31-22 and facing a fourth-and-2 from the 8, UT Coach Phillip Fulmer elected against kicking a field goal and decided to go for it. But Karl Booker, Joe Schuler and Jon Sumrall combined to stop Fayton a yard short of the first down.
"All we talked about on the sidelines was the fact that we had to keep them out of the end zone," Archer said. "They were very wary of trying to kick. We had already blocked two, and that was the whole plan."
On third-and-2 from the 12, Archer called for a blitz, but Riggs overran Karl Booker.
"We got gashed," said UK linebacker Dennis Johnson, who was forced out of the game in the first half with a hyperextended knee. "In our defense, if you come on a blitz and don't get him, it's over."
Fulmer was glad he didn't have to chance it on a field goal.
"On the blocked kicks, we need to get the ball up better obviously," he said. "We moved the ball back a little bit hoping that would help, but Lonnell Dewalt is a tough man to handle."
"I don't think I've ever had a kick blocked in my career," Wilhoit said. "I felt like I hit the ball well all day but when you've got a guy who's 6-8 and got a 40-inch vertical ... "
But the Kentucky defense has several other things it can point at -- namely the 606 yards it allowed, the most UK has yielded since the Vols piled up 695 yards in that memorable 1997 shootout between Tim Couch and Peyton Manning.
The Vols were at their own 35-yard line, trailing 31-22 with 10:55 remaining, when Clausen threw in the flat to Fayton, who then tossed it downfield to a wide-open Robert Meachem for a 53-yard gain. Clausen threw a 12-yard TD pass to Tony Brown two plays later to bring UT to within 31-29.
"We have been practicing that pass for what seems like forever," Fulmer said.
Tennessee was 9-for-16 on third-down conversions.
"One play didn't beat us," Archer said. "We had opportunities. We just couldn't get off the field."
It was the second consecutive narrow escape by the Vols, who were pushed to the wire last week by Vanderbilt but hung on for a 38-33 victory.
Now Tennessee will move on to next week's Southeastern Conference championship game in Atlanta for a rematch with Auburn, which pasted the Vols 34-10 on Oct. 2.
"I love these guys, but they are making an old man out of me and the rest of the staff," Fulmer said. "We haven't played with the passion we needed to lately, but we got it done."
For Brooks and UK, it was another in a long list of what-might-have-beens. The Wildcats finished the season with a 2-9 record, 1-7 in the SEC.
"It could have been a huge win, but will be another asterisk in the `tough games that got away' category," Brooks said. "We came in here and were this close to doing something no Kentucky team had done in 20 years. It was a heck of a game, but the wrong team won."