John Clay

An unsweet 16: Will Kentucky ever win again on Rocky Top?

In the press box before Saturday’s kickoff, Alan Cutler asked me if I was there in 1984.

After all, that was the last time a Kentucky football team beat Tennessee in Knoxville, when Jerry Claiborne’s club pulled out a 17-12 victory over the host Volunteers.

No, I told Alan, I wasn’t lucky enough to be in attendance for the 1984 Kentucky-Tennessee game.

So you’ve never seen Kentucky win here, said the WLEX-TV sports anchor.

Au contraire. Back in 1976, my senior year in high school, I sat in the Neyland Stadium stands with my family as Fran Curci’s club blanked the Vols 7-0. It was a milestone win that clinched the program’s first bowl bid in 25 years. Two days later, Bill Battle, now the athletics director at Alabama, would resign as Tennessee coach. A month later, Kentucky would beat North Carolina 21-0 in the Peach Bowl.

That was 40 years ago; a long, long 40 years if you’re a Kentucky football fan. The Cats have beaten Tennessee just four times since; three in Lexington (1977, 1981 and 2011) and once in Knoxville (1984).

In fact, Saturday brought Kentucky’s 16th straight loss at Neyland, a 49-36 defeat that was not as close as the final score suggests.

“Frustrating,” was the word Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops used.

It also describes the series. Of all the “nots” that hound Kentucky football — not beating Florida since 1986; not posting a winning SEC record since 1977; not being able to build a consistent winner — the inability to beat the dreaded Vols surely ranks at or near the top.

After all, Tennessee is a border rival. And every other year after every other year, Big Blue fans make the short trip down I-75 in hopes this will finally be the season the Cats dance on that Power T only to head back north disappointed.

Kentucky has had its opportunities, too. It’s not like Tennessee has been a national power of late. No matter. The Cats couldn’t beat Johnny Majors even when he was being pushed out that Big Orange door, or Phil Fulmer when his program was in decline, or Derek Dooley (not in Knoxville) before he was fired, or now Butch Jones.

This year, UK appeared to at least have a reasonable shot of making the trip over Jellico worthwhile. Stoops’ troops were 4-3 in SEC play compared to Tennessee’s 2-3. The Vols’ high expectations had been undercut by a viral strain of injuries.

Still, as Stoops pointed out in his postgame news conference: “Tennessee was preseason top 10 for a reason.”

The Vols looked the part. When quarterback Josh Dobbs wasn’t throwing for 223 yards and three touchdowns, he was rushing for 147 and two more. Alvin Kamara, back from injury, rushed for 128 yards on just 10 carries. Hard-running freshman John Kelly just missed the century party with 94 yards. And coordinator’s Bob Shoop’s defense had plenty of bend but not much break.

Despite its 635 yards of total offense, in separate possessions UK had first-and-10 at the UT 16; first-and-goal at the UT six; first-and-10 at the UT 12 and first-and-10 at the UT 14 and failed to score a touchdown on any of those drives.

“We didn’t finish,” UK offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said. “We’ve got to finish.”

When the game was finished, Kentucky headed home battered and bruised, its depth tested by multiple injuries, its spoken focus on the season’s final two games, but with the knowledge it will be another two years before it has another shot at winning on Rocky Top.

At least I was there in ’76.

Kentucky’s 16 straight losses at Tennessee

Date

Game

UK

UT

Dec

11/22/86

@Tennessee

9

28

L

11/19/88

@Tennessee

24

28

L

11/24/90

@Tennessee

28

42

L

11/21/92

@Tennessee

13

34

L

11/19/94

@Tennessee

0

52

L

11/23/96

@Tennessee

10

56

L

11/21/98

@Tennessee

21

59

L

11/18/00

@Tennessee

20

59

L

11/30/02

@Tennessee

0

24

L

11/27/04

@Tennessee

31

37

L

11/25/06

@Tennessee

12

17

L

11/29/08

@Tennessee

10

28

L

11/27/10

@Tennessee

14

24

L

11/24/12

@Tennessee

17

37

L

11/15/14

@Tennessee

16

50

L

11/12/16

@Tennessee

36

49

L

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