The tears flowed freely from the eyes of Corey Peters during Kentucky's Senior Day festivities before the Tennessee game. But those tears paled in comparison the ones Peters shed after the game, as the Wildcats were forced to deal with yet another heartbreaking loss to the Vols.
UK couldn't build on a 21-14 halftime lead, had to settle for a game-tying field goal late in the fourth quarter after recovering a Tennessee fumble, and then fizzled in overtime as UT escaped with a 30-24 win over the Cats in front of 70,981 at Commonwealth Stadium.
Tennessee tailback Montario Hardesty, who carried 39 times for 179 yards and three touchdowns, ended the game with a 20-yard run in the extra period.
The victory extended the Vols' winning streak over UK to 25 games, the longest consecutive streak in the nation. Tennessee outgained Kentucky 209-80 in the second half. It was also Tennessee's first road win of the season and first when they trailed at halftime.
Instead of ending the streak, finishing second in the SEC East and wrapping up a likely trip to the Outback Bowl, the Wildcats slipped to fifth place and now must wait to find out their bowl destination.
"It's kind of sad," Peters said. "We had plenty of opportunities to get the victory, but it all fell through in the second half. It hurts so much. Not just because it's Tennessee, but because of all the possibilities that could have been. We just didn't take advantage."
"This is the hardest loss I've had to stomach," said UK senior linebacker Micah Johnson. "I'm sorry I don't have anything great to say to give you guys to write about. I'm just at a loss for words right now. I don't have any words to describe this feeling."
The Cats looked to be in decent shape when Peters dragged Tennessee quarterback Jonathan Crompton down short of the end zone on fourth-and-goal from the 1 to preserve the Cats' seven-point lead on Tennessee's first drive of the second half.
But Randall Cobb fumbled on a Wildcat sweep from the Cats' 28, setting up kicker Daniel Mathis' 30-yard field goal that gave UT its first lead of the game (24-21) with 44 seconds left in the third. That was the second of two scores that were set up by Kentucky turnovers. The Vols turned a first-half fumble by Newton into a 13-yard TD run by Hardesty that tied the game at 14 in the second quarter.
"Both of those turnovers were very costly," Kentucky Coach Rich Brooks said.
Tennessee went to Hardesty to milk the clock and ice the game in the fourth quarter, but UK got an unexpected gift when tight end Luke Stocker coughed it up after a hit by Ashton Cobb and Taylor Wyndham recovered at the UT 37.
"After the fumble, I just knew we'd win," Peters said.
Kentucky got all the way to the Tennessee 10-yard line but couldn't cash in on a game-winning touchdown. Derrick Locke picked up two yards on second-and-7, and Newton's keeper around right end on third-and-5 netted just two more. UK had to settle for a 23-yard Lones Seiber field goal to tie the score at 24 and force overtime.
Newton, a true freshman forced into action after starter Mike Hartline went down with a knee injury, was 10-for-22 passing for 69 yards and carried five times for only 9 yards. He pinned the loss on his shoulders.
"I feel like I let the team down and let the seniors down," Newton said. "There's a lot of things I could have done differently. On that rollout to the right, I've got to find a way to get that first down."
The Cats' first possession of overtime did not go well. Moncell Allen dropped a pass from Newton in the flat, and Locke was stopped for a loss of 6 on second down. After Newton's third down pass fell incomplete, Seiber's 49-yard field-goal attempt sailed wide left.
A holding call on first down pushed the Vols back 10 yards on their first play of overtime, setting up a first-and-20 from the UK 35. But Crompton picked up a Kentucky blitz and hit Gerald Jones for 14 yards on second-and-20, and Hardesty burst threw the middle of the field untouched on the next play for the winning score.
Kentucky's 261 yards of offense were one more than it had in a 34-27 win over Georgia last week, but that didn't cut it against UT. Cobb carried 18 times for 101 yards, but leading rusher Derrick Locke was limited to 22 yards on 11 carries. Brooks said Tennessee was bringing All-America safety Eric Berry up in the box to keep Locke from doing damage on the outside.
"They were making it difficult for us to get on the perimeter, and that's where we've been successful against most people," Brooks said. "They had a few more than we could block in most situations."
And the Cats had no answer for Hardesty, who came up with the big runs when the Vols needed, including the game-winner.
"They were really knocking us off the ball in the second half," Brooks said. "We missed some gaps and, most of the time, they were falling forward, not backwards."
The Cats labored in the first half of the past few games but got off to a promising start. Senior linebacker Sam Maxwell stepped in front of Crompton pass intended for Jones and took it 56 yards for a touchdown to give the Cats a 7-0 lead at the 10:41 mark of the first quarter.
It took Tennessee just over a minute to tie the score. Crompton found Jones for a 30-yard gain and, after Denarius Moore took it 21 yards on a reverse, Hardesty scored on a 9-yard run to make it 7-7 with 9:34 remaining in the opening period.
UK then went to Cobb and the Wildcat formation to reclaim the lead. Cobb picked up 15 on a scramble and then got two yards on fourth-and-1 from the Tennessee 30. Newton then handed off to Locke, who pitched it to Cobb coming around the left side. Cobb took it in from 17 yards out to give UK a 14-7 advantage with seven seconds left in the first quarter.
A 43-yard kickoff return by Cobb set UK up at the Tennessee 40, and Locke picked up 12 and 15 yards on screen passes from Newton to set up his 1-yard run with 39 seconds left to give the Cats a 21-14 lead at intermission.
Tennessee improved to 7-5 overall and wrapped up second place in the East with a 4-4 conference record.
"They were saying it could be the biggest game ever here but, when you come into that environment with everything on the line like this, their Senior Night and that, they're probably going to come in with a lot of energy, and you have to have your team ready for that," Volunteers Coach Lane Kiffin said. "It was just us weathering the storm and using up a bunch of their good stuff early."
Kentucky will have one last chance to improve on last year's 7-6 record in its yet-to-be-determined bowl game, but that offered little solace in a somber post-game press conference.
"They're a pretty good group of seniors that have accomplished something that has never been done here," Brooks said. "But that doesn't make me feel very good right now. It will take some time to get over this, but we've got to find out what's going on (with the bowl selection) and who we'll play and go out and try and finish this thing."