- PostGame audio slide show: UT vs. Kentucky
- Box Score: UT vs. Kentucky
- Watching with Ward: Review the game, play-by-play
- Vol Report for Nov. 25 (PDF)
- Josh Ward interviews UT defensive coordinator John Chavis
- Josh Ward interviews UT offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe
Tennessee Stat Book
LEXINGTON, Ky. — The road from Berkeley to Atlanta was long, winding and fraught with close calls. Why should the last mile have been any different?
It wasn’t. It topped everything that had come before.
Tennessee realized its once-unthinkable SEC East title Saturday, but not before it outlasted Kentucky 52-50 in four heart-stopping overtimes that left a crowd of 69,813 at Commonwealth Stadium limp.
“Here we are,” said UT coach Phillip Fulmer. “Several weeks ago we were given up for dead and we’re going to Atlanta to play for a championship.”
The 19th-ranked Vols (9-3, 6-2 SEC) win the Eastern Division by virtue of a 35-14 head-to-head tie-breaking victory over Georgia on Oct. 6. The Bulldogs also finished 6-2.
Tennessee faces SEC West champion LSU (10-2) on Saturday (TV: WVLT, 4 p.m.) in the Georgia Dome. The winner is the conference champion and advances to the Sugar Bowl.
Tennessee has won eight of its past nine games since it left Florida a 59-20 loser on Sept. 15 — and five in a row since being routed at Alabama on Oct. 20.
But linebacker Jerod Mayo doesn’t want anyone jumping on the bandwagon now.
“This team thrives on the negativity from the media and the fans,” said Mayo. “I don’t want anybody to pick us to win this game — anybody at all.
“Then we’ll probably go down there and get the job done.”
They got the job done Saturday, although it would have been a lot less taxing had the Vols not blown a 31-14 lead with 1:31 left to play in the third quarter.
While Tennessee’s offense did next to nothing after building a 24-7 halftime lead, Kentucky (7-5, 3-5) roared back and tied the game 31-31 on Lones Seiber’s 20-yard field goal as time expired.
Seiber, the sophomore from Central High School, had a chance to end Tennessee’s 22-year domination when he lined up a 34-yard field goal in the second overtime with the score tied 38-38.
Dan Williams blocked the kick, however, and the Vols and Wildcats wrestled for two more overtimes.
Both teams scored a touchdown in the third overtime, but neither could convert the mandatory two-point conversion attempt.
UT had a chance to end the game on its conversion but Arian Foster was stopped on a run, leaving the score knotted at 44-44.
Foster spiked the ball in frustration and was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct.
The 15-yard dead-ball foul meant Tennessee began the fourth overtime at its 40 instead of the 25.
The Vols, however, got it all in one play when Ainge found Quintin Hancock running free for a 40-yard touchdown.
“Scoring on the first play took a lot of weight off my shoulders,” admitted Foster.
The two-point conversion pass to Austin Rogers put UT up 52-44.
But then the Vols had to play defense. Kentucky’s Derrick Locke scored on a two-yard run to make it 52-50.
The game ended when Tennessee’s Antonio Reynolds tackled quarterback Andre Woodson on the two-point conversion try.
After 4 hours, 43 minutes, the Vols could finally celebrate.
“We’ve got to thank God,” said Ainge. “We probably should have lost that football game about four times over.
“But the heart of this team is second to absolutely none in this country.
“That’s kind of the story of this season. When we need it, we get it.”
Kentucky was crushed. The nation’s longest rivalry winning streak lives on at 23 years.
“This was a tough loss,” said Kentucky guard Jason Leger. “Since I came here, Tennessee was the team that I wanted to beat.
“This is the toughest loss for me while I’ve been at Kentucky.”
Once it got to overtime, the Vols had to be feeling confident. UT is 7-1 all time in overtime and has won six consecutive games.
“What a way to make a living, huh?” said Fulmer.
The four overtimes bloated the statistics but a CBS television audience got a pretty fair duel from two senior quarterbacks.
Ainge was 28 of 45 for 397 yards and seven touchdowns.
Woodson was 39-of-62 for 430 yards and six touchdowns.
Kentucky ran 110 offensive plays for 564 yards.
Tennessee ran 82 plays for 520 yards.
Foster rushed for 118 yards and caught nine passes for 98 more.
Ainge and Foster hooked up for a 65-yard touchdown on the first snap of the game. An 18-yard TD pass to Lucas Taylor made it a 14-0 lead, still in the first quarter.
UT was in control 17-7 when an Xavier Mitchell’s interception set up what appeared at the time to be an early knockout punch.
Mitchell’s return to the Kentucky 17 preceded a 15-yard scoring pass from Ainge to Hancock. UT led 24-7 with just 17 seconds left in the half.
But in the second half, Tennessee was stuck in neutral. The Vols’ only score — a 2-yard Ainge pass to Jeff Cottam — came after Wes Brown’s recovery of a Woodson fumble at the Kentucky 30 gave the offense a short field.
Still, a 31-14 lead looked solid.
With Woodson in a rhythm, Kentucky cut it to 31-28 with 6:11 to play. The Vols then failed to make a first down on two possessions.
Kentucky took over at its 9 with 3:32 to play and drove 91 yards for Seiber’s field goal to force overtime.
That just meant a whole new game was beginning.
“Coach Fulmer tells us every week there’s ebbs and flows in the game,” said Mayo, “and you’ve just got to ride with ’em ’til you come out on top.”
And Tennessee found a way — or ways — to come out on top.
“I couldn’t ask any more from this team,” said Fulmer.
Then he quickly added:
“Except for one more.”
Mike Strange may be reached at 865-342-6276.