This was it.
Forget about Kentucky's 22-game losing streak to Tennessee, or the 17-point lead the Vols had over UK late in the third quarter yesterday.This was going to be the year.
And several times yesterday, it looked as if fate was in the back pocket of the UK football team. The Wildcats battled back and erased that 17-point deficit and put themselves in position to win the game several times.
But in the end, like so many other times in the history of the series, Tennessee was Lucy and Kentucky was Charlie Brown. Just as the Wildcats approached the ball and appeared ready to get that much desired kick, the Volunteers pulled it away at the last minute and left the Cats to fall flat on their backs.
No. 19 Tennessee stopped UK quarterback Andre Woodson on a potential game-tying two-point-conversion run in the fourth overtime to allow the Vols to escape with a breathtaking 52-50 win over the Wildcats on Senior Day at Commonwealth Stadium.
The win put UT (9-3, 6-2) in next week's Southeastern Conference Championship Game against Louisiana State, while UK must sit and lament another bitter loss to its border-state rival.
Kentucky Coach Rich Brooks called the loss both "devastating," and "deflating."
"It was a great college football game, but the way I look at it, the wrong team ended up winning," he said. "The streak lives."
"It was a true battle," said Tennessee Coach Phillip Fulmer. "In the SEC, you don't get better football than you saw tonight."
What will make this one perhaps the most painful of them all is the boatload of opportunities UK had to win it.
Kentucky (7-5, 3-5) stormed back from a 31-14 third-quarter deficit with consecutive touchdowns to pull to within three at 31-28. And the Cats had the ball first-and-goal at the UT 5 in the closing seconds of regulation.
A pass interference call on Tennessee moved the ball to the 2-yard line with eight seconds left, which seemed like enough time for Kentucky to run one, and possibly two plays before attempting a game-tying field goal.
But Woodson dropped the shotgun snap and was forced to scramble around before overthrowing Keenan Burton, who had broken free along the back of the end zone.
That took the game clock down to one second, and the Cats had to settle for a 20-yard Lones Seiber field goal at the horn to force overtime.
UK also had plenty of chances to clinch in the overtime periods. The two squads exchanged touchdowns in the first OT, and then Kentucky got what appeared to be a game-turning break as cornerback Trevard Lindley deflected an Erik Ainge pass into the arms of Sam Maxwell in the end zone.
All the Cats needed was a field goal to end it, and after three straight running plays, Seiber lined up for a 34-yard field-goal attempt.
"I thought it was over," sophomore defensive end Jeremy Jarmon said. "We all have confidence in Lones."
But Tennessee defensive tackle Dan Williams shot up the middle and blocked Seiber's kick, which sent the game to a third extra period. Williams said Seiber's kick hit him in the facemask.
"They've got good jumpers, and they got a real good push up the middle," Brooks said. "The kick was a little low, and they nailed it.
"All you need is three. You hope you make most of those, and we have all year long."
The teams then traded off touchdowns and failed two-point-conversion attempts, and Kentucky caught another break when Tennessee tailback Arian Foster was flagged for a personal foul for throwing the ball after being knocked out of bounds by David Jones after the Vols tied it at 44.
That pushed UT back 15 yards to the UK 40, but the Vols needed just one play to hit pay dirt as a blown coverage allowed Ainge to hook up with Quintin Hancock on a 40-yard TD strike. Ainge hit Austin Rogers on the two-point conversion pass to put the Vols up 52-44.
"A total breakdown," Jarmon said. "That was the easiest touchdown I saw all night."
After Derrick Locke scored from two yards out to bring Kentucky within two, the Wildcats had to go for the tie.
Woodson took the shotgun snap from the 3-yard line and looked for Dicky Lyons Jr. on a skinny post. That was covered up, and after seeing that Steve Johnson was double-teamed, Woodson tried to run it in, but UT defensive end Antonio Reynolds caught Woodson from behind and dragged him down two yards short of the end zone.
The Cats will also probably look back to a startingly sluggish first half in which they were outgained 307-133 and trailed 24-7 at intermission.
Brooks said the Senior Day festivities might have taken a little air out of his team.
"I thought they'd be ready to play," he said. "We had a good week of practice and were mentally prepared, I thought. But there was so much emotion out there that you can lose focus and concentration. Sometimes it takes someone hitting you in the mouth for you to snap out of it."
Brooks said he stayed relatively calm in the locker room at halftime, and the players said they knew they'd make a run.
"We've done it so many times," Burton said. "We've overcome and overcome and overcome."
"Not one time did I doubt that we'd come back," Woodson said. "I felt the whole time that we were going to come back and win."
Like they almost always do, the Cats came back. But like they always do, the Vols found a way to win.
"We've won quite a few games this way this year coming from behind, and I was pretty confident that we were going to do it again after we had tied it up in regulation," Brooks said. "Unfortunately, we didn't get it done this time.
"There were a lot of great plays made by both teams. In the end, they made one more than we did."
Date story ran: Sunday, November 25, 2007