John Clay

John Clay: Cats can't get their party started

John Clay
John Clay

Big Blue Nation was all dressed up for a party, not the party to end all parties, but the party to end Kentucky's embarrassing domination at the hands of Tennessee.

And for 30 minutes last night at Commonwealth Stadium, it looked for all the world that the UK band would play, the balloons would drop and the Cats could celebrate long into the November night.

Then the second half began.

And the clock struck orange.

By the end, the proceedings all had that familiar sense of doom, a feeling confirmed when the Volunteers' Montario Hardesty ripped 20 yards through an ominous opening in the home defense for the winning touchdown and a 30-24 victory.

Tennessee's 25th straight triumph over Kentucky.

A quarter-century.

There's no longer consecutive series streak in college football, and certainly not one more painful.

In each of Tennessee's past two visits to Commonwealth Stadium, the game has extended to overtime only to prolong the Cats' misery, Rich Brooks' team ending up on the losing side both times.

"We had a chance to do something that hadn't been done in a long time around here, finish second in the SEC East," said the glum Kentucky coach afterward. "And we failed."

This year was supposed to be different, the rare November when the outcome didn't appear pre-determined, the Cats' best chance to stop a skid that stretched all the way to 1984.

The Vols, under first-year coach Lane Kiffin, were not the vintage Orange of old. Tennessee entered this year's season finale a meager 6-5, having lost 42-17 to Mississippi two weeks back. The Vols were vulnerable.

Kentucky was on a roll, fresh off its first win at Georgia in 32 years. In fact, each of the last two weeks, Brooks' bunch had surged in the second half, storming back for a win at Vanderbilt, then swarming Georgia in the final 30 minutes in Athens.

The momentum seemed to carry over to this night's first half. The Tennessee native Randall Cobb was on the job, running with dogged determination, catching passes, throwing passes. Derrick Locke motored with willpower. A typical slow starter all year, Kentucky led 21-14 at intermission.

But the strong second-half team weakened this time. Tennessee made adjustments. It lined up, knocked a tiring Kentucky off the line of scrimmage, and kept the ball out of the Cats' hands — and when in possession, UK did little to nothing with it. The Cats managed 80 yards of offense the second half. Tennessee gained 209.

Tennessee's ground success set up the Vols' play-action. A 30-yard pass from Jonathan Crompton to former Madison Southern tight end Luke Stocker set up Tennessee's tying touchdown. A 30-yard field goal by Devin Mathis put the visitors up 24-21 with 44 seconds left in the third.

Ironically, it was Stocker that gave UK a chance. His lost fumble with 2:21 left gave Kentucky the ball at the UT 37. But the Cats couldn't punch it in for six points, settling instead for a disappointing three on Lones Seiber's game-tying 23-yard field goal with 33 seconds remaining. That sent the game to overtime.

In the end, it just prolonged the agony. Kentucky got the ball first in overtime, but went nowhere on its possession. Seiber's 49-yard field goal attempt was short. Three snaps later, there was Hardesty running free. Game over.

"That's a sad group of seniors in there," said Brooks in the post-game locker room.

Misery loves company. It was a juiced-up crowd at Commonwealth, one that arrived early, stayed late, lustily booed the Tennessee band, and held hope to the bitter end that there would be a history-making celebration after all.

But as the stadium emptied in the black Kentucky night, there was no party music.

Just the echoes of Rocky Top.

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