Mark Story

Mark Story: Vols' hold on Cats remains unbreakable

Joker Phillips questioned a call  in the third quarter as Kentucky saw Tennessee regain its momentum in the second half.
Joker Phillips questioned a call in the third quarter as Kentucky saw Tennessee regain its momentum in the second half. Mark Cornelison | Staff

KNOXVILLE — All too briefly, The Long Suffering UK Football Fan got a glimpse of heaven.

Kentucky marched right into sun-drenched Neyland Stadium and flat took control of Tennessee.

The much-maligned UK defense started the game with a red-zone stop and then forced a UT three-and-out.

Kentucky's offense took the ball and roared 80 yards to a touchdown, then came back on its second possession of the game and was doing it again.

Inside the final minute of the first quarter, already up 7-0, Kentucky had first-and-goal at the Volunteers' 1.

Which is exactly the moment — as it so often does when Kentucky is opposite Tennessee on a football field — that heaven turned to hell.

On what appeared to be a stretch play to the left, UK star running back Derrick Locke mishandled an attempted handoff from Mike Hartline. One measly yard from being ahead 14-0, Kentucky instead saw UT recover the fumble in the end zone.

"Tragic," Hartline said afterward of the play.

"Huge momentum play, huge turn in the game" Kentucky offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said.

Said Kentucky Coach Joker Phillips. "I've never been in a game where I thought we had as much control of the game, a chance to go up 14, you fumble and everything changed so quickly."

Same story, same verse, one more time: Tennessee 24, Kentucky 14.

Make it a staggering 26 Big Orange football wins in a row over the not-so-Big Blue. Make it a dispiriting defeat in a game that Phillips really needed to win to put some gloss on what now stands as an uneven and disappointing first season as UK head coach.

And make it well past time to adjust the narrative of the 2010 Kentucky football season. The UK defense was not very good in 2010 and took as much verbal abuse in the court of public opinion as Nancy Pelosi takes on the EIB Network.

But the reason the Cats lost Saturday in Neyland Stadium and why they finished their regular season a mediocre 6-6 is that a Kentucky offense stacked with veteran, talented skill players spent too many of this season's key games producing turnovers like Magee's Bakery.

There were three Saturday in Knoxville. Locke's crippling goal-line fumble; a lost Randall Cobb fumble after a nice catch and gain; and a late Hartline interception that Sanders said was caused by wide receiver Chris Matthews not running a proper route.

This was after the three turnovers UK committed at Mississippi; the four it had against Georgia; and the four miscues it produced at Mississippi State.

The tally for those four key SEC swing games — all of which were winnable for Kentucky — was a combined 14 turnovers and a combined zero wins.

"Turnovers killed us," Cobb said afterward. "I had one myself. We work on ball security every day. There's no excuse for it."

Phillips said he believed Locke's fumble at the 1-yard line was a combination of the running back going too wide in his approach for the handoff and Hartline possibly being a tad slow out from under center.

"We missed the exchange and put the ball on the ground," the UK coach said. "We gave them life with the exchange problem we had."

After the fumble, Tennessee needed only six plays to go 80 yards and tie the game. After UK failed to sustain a drive on its next possession, the Vols and impressive freshman QB Tyler Bray needed two pass plays to Denarius Moore to cover 61 yards and put UT ahead 14-7.

Though Kentucky tied the game 14-14 in the third period, UK never again established the control it had before the Locke fumble.

If someone had told me before Saturday's game that Tennessee would score 24 points, I'd have said Kentucky had ended The Streak.

Instead a UK offense that came to Knoxville averaging 34.7 points let a golden chance slip away.

Hartline — razor sharp much of the year — missed open receivers on two crucial second-half, third-down conversion tries. After it fell behind, Kentucky's play-calling took too long to adjust and seemed overly conservative for too long. Down 21-14 and facing a fourth-and-2 at the UT 37 on UK's first possession of the fourth period, Phillips elected to punt rather than gamble.

And there were the turnovers.

So now The Streak has reached 26 years old, has gone on eHarmony and is looking for a nice girl for a long-term relationship.

Why not? After the Saturday when TLSUKFF fleetingly saw heaven only to end up back in hell, The Streak feels as if it can live forever.