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Through the years
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Neyland Stadium has seen its share of forlorn endings in 2008. You’d have never known it, though, judging by the closing scene Saturday night.
Phillip Fulmer rode off into the sunset on the shoulders of his players after his final Tennessee team pounded Kentucky 28-10.
As last impressions go, the second half of a rare November night game stands about as strong as any the Vols played all year.
With a crowd estimated at 65,000 braving the chill and wet to honor Fulmer, Tennessee broke away from a 7-3 halftime struggle to dominate the Wildcats on both sides of the ball.
The Vols rolled to a 28-3 lead before allowing a meaningless touchdown late. For the first time since October, a UT quarterback didn’t throw an interception that was returned for a touchdown.
“That’s what we wanted it to look like,’’ said Fulmer.
“Given time, that’s more what I think it would have looked like.’’
Fulmer wasn’t given more time, though. His tenure ended 152-52, the second-most wins in program history behind Robert Neyland’s 173.
When Lane Kiffin is officially named the new coach this week he inherits a 24-game winning streak over Kentucky, the longest of any series in the nation.
By beating Vanderbilt and Kentucky to close the season, the Vols end up 5-7 (3-5 SEC), avoiding becoming the first eight-loss team in program history.
“The record doesn’t indicate it but we worked our butts off,’’ said senior defensive end Robert Ayers.
“It was a good win,’’ added quarterback Jonathan Crompton, “to send Coach out in the right fashion.’’
Crompton, a junior who struggled most of the season, also went out in the right fashion.
He was a judicious 6-of-8 passing for 101 yards and ran eight times for 17 yards.
Four times Crompton ran to convert first downs, but his biggest gain was a 1-foot sneak for a touchdown on fourth-and-goal to close the first half.
That score put UT up 7-3 at the break. On the third play of the second half, Crompton connected with wide-open Denarius Moore for a 63-yard touchdown to make it 14-3.
“I saw pre-snap we had a good match,’’ Crompton said. “The o-line and the running backs did a good job protecting against the blitz call and the rest is history.’’
Said Fulmer, “I’m really proud for Jonathan to play as well as he did tonight.
“That’s more like we all expected.’’
Eric Berry had a nice 23-yard run at quarterback in an 80-yard touchdown drive. Lennon Creer got the score on a 5-yard toss sweep to extend the lead to 21-3 as the fourth quarter began.
UT’s next touchdown drive covered a season-long 83 yards.
Crompton converted third-and-8 with a 12-yard run. Then Gerald Jones sprinted 55 yards to set up his 2-yard TD. UT led 28-3 with 5:44 to play.
Alphonso Smith scored Kentucky’s lone touchdown, a 1-yard run with 3:44 left.
The Wildcats’ only other points came via a 40-yard field goal from Central High School graduate Lones Seiber in the first quarter.
The Wildcats finished 6-6, 2-6 SEC and await a bowl bid.
Alcoa product Randall Cobb started at quarterback for Kentucky.
He gave way to Mike Hartline in the third quarter, finishing 4-of-7 passing for 23 yards and rushing for 22 on 11 carries.
“First thing I’d like to do,’’ said Kentucky coach Rich Brooks, “is congratulate Phil Fulmer for going out in style.
“I think (Fulmer’s ouster) is a tragedy, a sad commentary on the coaching profession.’’
UT rushed for 210 of its 311 yards. The Vols held Kentucky to 193 yards. It was the third time this year UT had limited an opponent to fewer than 200 yards.
“We sent Coach (John) Chavis out on a good note,’’ said Ayers.
The first half was more representative of Tennessee’s season.
The first quarter was spent jockeying for field position, with Kentucky winning. The Wildcats, however, managed only the Seiber field goal.
In the second quarter, Kentucky went backward for a net of minus-22 yards.
Speaking of going backward, three of UT’s first four possessions produced negative yardage.
The Vols were able to turn the tide but it was a chore.
Trailing 3-0, Tennessee took over at the Wildcats’ 35 after a short punt. What followed was a laborious, 12-play drive that required two fourth-down conversions and consumed all 5:36 left in the half.
A pass-interference flag in the end zone gave the Vols first-and-goal at the 1.
Three times Arian Foster charged forward. Still, facing fourth down, the Vols remained a foot from the goal line.
They used a timeout to stop the clock with 2 seconds. Crompton got the touchdown on a keeper as time expired.
“After that,’’ said Crompton, “the whole team knew we had momentum.’’
And it lasted long enough for a coach to get a ride off the field for the last time.
“We’ve had a good run,’’ said Fulmer.
“I wasn’t really ready for it to end, but it probably ended up as well as it could.’’
Mike Strange may be reached at 865-342-6276 or email@example.com.