John Clay

John Clay: Cats flub a season for the taking

Tennessee cornerback Prentiss Waggner intercepted a pass intended for senior wide receiver Chris Matthews as Kentucky tried to rally from a 24-14 deficit during the fourth quarter.
Tennessee cornerback Prentiss Waggner intercepted a pass intended for senior wide receiver Chris Matthews as Kentucky tried to rally from a 24-14 deficit during the fourth quarter.

KNOXVILLE — It's been said before, but bears repeating: Kentucky football never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

Saturday proved it.

This season proved it.

The Cats lost 24-14 on Saturday to a mediocre (at best) Tennessee team that entered its Senior Day 5-6 and seriously beatable. Opportunity knocked at Kentucky's door. And for the 26th consecutive year, the Cats failed to answer.

But then the conference season was a series of missed opportunities, what with the SEC East powerhouses coming back to the pack. Florida wasn't Florida. Georgia wasn't Georgia. Tennessee wasn't Tennessee.

But Kentucky was Kentucky, finishing the year 6-6 overall and 2-6 in the league.

Oh, the Cats are going bowling, but let's be honest here — and not to be mean — this isn't a bowl team. Not in the classic sense, the achievement sense. It's a bowl team in the modern sense, when any club with six victories and proper equipment can play in the post-season. The inconvenient truth is that the Cats scheduled their way to their fifth consecutive bowl.

That was just another reason defeat No. 6 was the most disappointing. Perpetual slow starters, the Cats broke from the gate quickly, up 7-0, then a yard away from a two-touchdown lead. But losses seem to hunt this team down. Derrick Locke fumbled. Tennessee recovered in the end zone. Six plays later, the Vols had tied the score.

Later, Randall Cobb would lose a fumble. Mike Hartline would throw an interception. And miss open receivers. There were drops and penalties and another anything-but-special performance by the special teams.

Yes, the defense gave Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray an EZ-pass, giving up 354 yards through the air. But for the most part, Steve Brown's unit played to its abilities, while a previously explosive offense could never get out of a stutter-step.

"It was a rough one," admitted head coach Joker Phillips.

"It is the little things that get you beat," said Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart. "And Joker addressed that with our team. Until we figure that out, the little things that get you past that, we'll continue to struggle to get the movement we want in our record to get where we want to go."

This was the year they could have gotten there, or drawn closer, not so much through UK's strengths, but via the weaknesses of its foes. This was the year to settle scores.

Florida finished an unfathomable 4-4 in the league. Yet one of its wins was a 48-14 thumping of the Cats in Gainesville. Georgia won just three conference games. Yet the Dogs handled the Cats 44-31 in Commonwealth Stadium. This was the year to finally break the quarter-century Tennessee chokehold. Now the 26-year score differential has climbed to 527.

Yes, Kentucky wrestled a still-unbeaten Auburn to the final gun before losing on a field goal. The Cats finally slayed the mighty Spurrier, beating the eventual SEC East champs. But that triumph accentuates the failures. The Cats were good enough to beat the division champ, but just one other team: Vanderbilt.

And this is an eat-or-be-eaten league. Think Florida won't be better next year? Or Georgia? Tennessee appears on the rise, with a fine true freshman quarterback, and a coach in Derek Dooley who under adversity got his team to display definite improvement.

This was Phillips' first regular season, and though this wasn't a step forward, the former Cat deserves time to prove he has the chops.

"We've done 'Operation Win' in a lot of ways, we're just this far from getting it on the field where we want it to be," said Barnhart holding two fingers a third-and-inches distance apart. "And I think we can get there."

This year, they did not, and you have to wonder when it might get a better opportunity.