Story published: Sunday, November 27, 2005
It was advertised as the worst Tennessee team in decades, and for much of the game, the Volunteers played the part.
It still didn't matter.
Coach Phil Fulmer's embattled club came in and showed yesterday that even a bad Tennessee team isn't quite bad enough to lose to Kentucky.
UK blew several opportunities to seize early control and then watched
Tennessee gradually pulled away for a 27-8 win. The victory extended the Vols' win streak over Kentucky to 21 games -- the second-longest in the nation behind Notre Dame's 42-game streak over Navy -- and sent home a Commonwealth Stadium crowd of 61,924 disappointed.
The loss wrapped up a disappointing 3-8 season for Coach Rich Brooks and the Wildcats (2-6 Southeastern Conference), who were hoping to not only end Tennessee's stranglehold in the series, but also gain momentum heading into the off-season.
"The game obviously didn't go the way we wanted to," Brooks said. "I'm extremely disappointed that this season hasn't gone better, and particularly with this game."
It wasn't as if the Wildcats didn't have chances.
The Vols, who were eliminated from bowl contention by Vanderbilt last week, showed many of the reasons why they've struggled through an uncharacteristic losing campaign (5-6, 3-5 SEC).
Two long touchdowns were called back on holding penalties. Quarterback Erik Ainge followed up punt returner Jonathan Hefney's fumble by coughing it up at the Tennessee 30 on a sack by B. Jay Parsons.
They gave up a safety when they tried to pass out of their own end zone with a 21-point lead midway through the fourth quarter only to be called for intentional grounding.
None of it mattered. Tennessee still did enough to end its season without the embarrassment of back-to-back losses to Vandy and UK, and the Vols avoided the basement in the SEC Eastern Division.
"It was good to finish up the season with a win," Fulmer said. "It sounds weird coming out of my mouth. We usually end up coming in here and fighting for a win and then have a couple of weeks to prepare for a bowl game."
On its first drive, Tennessee looked like the Volunteers of the glory years. Robert Meachem broke away from UK defensive backs Antoine Huffman and Muhammad Abdullah and sprinted 50 yards for a catch-and-run touchdown to make it 7-0 at the 12:50 mark.
But UK got a much-needed break when Draak Davis popped the ball loose from Hefney on a punt return and recovered at the Tennessee 9.
Instead of taking it in for six, the Cats settled for a Taylor Begley 31-yard field goal.
"We've got to get a touchdown when we get field position like that," Brooks said.
That started a first-half trend of Kentucky leaving potential points on the field.
UK took over at midfield on its next possession, but backup quarterback Curtis Pulley was stuffed for no gain on a fourth-and-1 option keeper.
Pulley, a true freshman, took the bulk of the snaps after UK lost starting quarterback Andre Woodson to a shoulder injury in the second quarter.
UK got the ball right back when Trey Mielsch recovered Ainge's fumble at the UT 30, but the Cats went three-and-out, and Begley was wide right on a 43-yard field-goal attempt.
UK linebacker Ben McGrath appeared to have a read on an interception on the Vols' next series, but the ball skipped off his fingertips and into the arms of Chris Hannon for a 32-yard TD pass to make it 14-3 Vols with 6:14 left in the first half.
"We couldn't get a stop when we needed to, and we couldn't get points on the board when we needed to," said senior safety Abdullah. "That's the way it's been all year."
Kentucky appeared ready to make it 14-10 after Pulley picked up a yard on a fourth-and-inches sneak from the Tennessee 2. But tight end Jacob Tamme was whistled for a false start, and UK was forced to settle for another Begley field goal.
"There's no excuse," Tamme said of the false start. "I thought I heard the snap count. That's my fault. They were trying to draw me off, but I should know better. I learned my lesson the hard way. If we score there, it's a whole different ball game."
Tennessee padded its lead to 17-6 by halftime, but Kentucky came out and knocked on the door yet again on its first drive of the second half. The Cats made it to the Volunteers' 9 on an 8-yard screen pass from Pulley to Alexis Bwenge. Pulley lost a fumble on the next play, however, and Tennessee's Kevin Simon fell on it at the 10.
The clincher came when Justin Harrell deflected a pass that bounced off of Pulley's helmet and into Harrell's arms at the UK 7. Harrell barreled into the end zone to push the lead to 27-6 with 1:19 left in the third.
"That took the wind out of our sails," said offensive coordinator Joker Phillips.
Pulley finished 23-for-33 passing for 155 yards. He fumbled three times, losing one, and threw three interceptions.
Ainge, who had thrown for three touchdowns with seven interceptions coming into the game, found the magic touch yesterday, going 17-for-25 for 221 yards, two touchdowns and no picks.
"We tried to get (Ainge) going early with a couple of short passes," Fulmer said. "We have 70 or 75 plays, and 68 of them will be good, but the bad ones are the ones that beat you."
And for as many bad plays as Tennessee made yesterday, they reminded everybody that a bad Tennessee is still better than a bad Kentucky.