Sometimes, the more things change the more they stay same.
Example: Kentucky football at Tennessee.
This was the year these door-kicking Wildcats were finally going to kick down that ugly Big Orange Door. Kentucky was ranked (No. 11); Tennessee was unranked. Kentucky had won five SEC games; Tennessee just one. Kentucky had snapped streaks; Tennessee had struggled. Kentucky was good; Tennessee was, well, mediocre.
The anticipated bottom line: For the first time since 1984, the Cats were going to leave Rocky Top with smiles on their faces and history under their belts.
Instead: Tennessee 24, Kentucky 7.
Stop us if we’ve written this before — and we have — but when it comes to Neyland Stadium, Kentucky never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
“Not a very good effort,” said Kentucky coach Mark Stoops afterward, his voice low, his disappointment high. “It starts with me and really ends with me.”
Reason: Kentucky didn’t show up. After losing the much-hyped showdown with Georgia last week, the Cats suffered the much-dreaded letdown. The tank hit empty. There was no warning light. No buzzer. After nine tough games, the needle slid to E.
“No, I really didn’t,” said Stoops when asked if he felt during the week his team might not be ready to play on Saturday. “I didn’t feel that. Maybe it wasn’t, but again that’s on me.”
The “on me” was a familiar phrase in the Cats’ postgame. Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran used it more than once about the continuing struggles of his unit. “I’ve got to get it fixed,” Gran said. “And I will get it fixed.”
It’s not fixed now. The Cats managed just 68 yards in the first half and 262 for the game, the seventh straight game in which Kentucky has failed to gain 400 yards. It was the third straight game the Cats failed to rush for 100 yards, their 77 yards on the ground preceded by 84 against Georgia and 91 at Missouri.
But Saturday, UK’s defense was the tell. After all, the defense is the strength of this Kentucky team, the one that started the year 7-1. Yet the Cats gave up two touchdowns near the end of the first half, including a 39-yard Hail Mary-type pass in which UT quarterback Jarrett Guarantano found Marquez Callaway in end zone traffic for a touchdown on the final play of the second quarter for a 17-0 lead.
Tennessee gained 412 yards. Last Saturday, in a 14-3 win over C-USA Charlotte, the Vols gained all of 192. The Vols rushed for 215 yards while Guarantano completed 12 of 20 passes for 197 yards and two scores.
“I’ll be interested to watch the film,” said UK defensive coordinator Matt House, though you could tell he knew he was not going to like what he sees. “We’ve got to go back and regroup.”
That collective groan you just heard was from a Big Blue Nation saying, “Tell me about it.” So much for a Big Blue Dream Week. Beat Duke in basketball on Tuesday in the Champions Classic. Get the first win over Tennessee in Knoxville since 1984 in football. Blue heaven.
BBN suffered a pair of jaw-droppers instead. Tuesday brought the nightmare that was Duke 118, Kentucky 84. No one saw that coming. Saturday saw a 17-point Tennessee win that extended the Vols’ home mastery over the Cats to 17 straight.
And, oh yeah, the result ended Kentucky’s dream of a 10-win regular season and probably the Cats’ dream of making it to a New Year’s Six bowl game.
“We’ve still got a lot to play for,” Gran said afterward, and he’s right. The Cats can still win nine games in the regular season. They can celebrate Thanksgiving with another win at arch-rival Louisville. They can still go to a pretty darn good bowl game.
First, however, they’ll have to refuel. The offense has to find a way to change the scoreboard. The defense has to search the couch cushions for its mojo. And most of all, the Cats have to leave their disappointment behind, something they failed to do after the loss to Georgia.