"It's not about the streak at all. It's about each individual win.''
UT junior Ben Martin
LEXINGTON, Ky. - Streak? What streak?
A crowd of 70,981 came to Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday night, most dressed in blue and desperately hoping to see the streak end.
Tennessee escaped with a 30-24 overtime victory over Kentucky - its 25th in a row dating back to 1984, before any of the current players were born.
But when Montario Hardesty ended the game with a 20-yard touchdown run in the first overtime period, both sides were talking about anything but the longest winning streak in a major college football rivalry.
"It's not about the streak at all,'' said UT junior Ben Martin. "It's about each individual win.''
Ditto, said quarterback Jonathan Crompton.
"We weren't even thinking about that,'' said Crompton. "We wanted to win this game to get to a better bowl game.''
UT finished 7-5, 4-4 SEC, in coach Lane Kiffin's first season. The Vols will await a bowl invitation, with the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla., on New Year's Day a best-case scenario.
The Wildcats (7-5, 3-5 ) will go to a bowl game for a fourth consecutive year. But losing another close call to the Vols was a bitter pill to swallow - and not just because of the "S" word.
"It's tough,'' said Kentucky coach Rich Brooks.
"We had a chance to do something that hadn't been done around here, finishing second in the SEC East. We failed.''
But the Wildcats didn't fail to give the Vols all they wanted from the get-go.
Kentucky jumped to a quick 7-0 lead when linebacker Sam Maxwell returned an interception 56 yards for a touchdown.
With Alcoa native Randall Cobb causing problems for Tennessee in a variety of ways, the Wildcats held on for a 21-14 halftime lead.
Both Tennessee touchdowns came on Hardesty runs, of 9 and 13 yards.
His third touchdown, the game-winner, boosted him to a career-high 179 yards rushing, bettering the mark he set one week ago against Vanderbilt.
Kentucky got a first-half touchdown from Cobb on a 17-yard reverse.
His 18-yard punt return set that drive in motion. Then he popped a 43-yard kickoff return that set the stage for Derrick Locke's 1-yard touchdown just before the first half ended.
"He's a great player,'' Kiffin said of Cobb. "I wish he was on our team.''
Even without Cobb, Kiffin's team dominated the second half.
The Vols drove the first possession of the third quarter to the Kentucky 1 before getting stopped on fourth down.
The next drive produced a 16-yard TD pass from Crompton to Luke Stocker to tie the score 21-21.
Cobb then fumbled on the first Kentucky snap after the kickoff and the Vols recovered and were able to move close enough for a 30-yard field goal by walk-on Devin Mathis.
Their first lead, 24-21, came with 44 seconds in the third quarter.
Kentucky had 187 yards of offense in the first half, but it was a different story in the second.
The Wildcats never crawled beyond their own 30-yard line until they got a gift in the closing minutes.
Tennessee was in position to run out the clock in regulation until Stocker fumbled at the Vols' 38 with 2:21 to play.
The crowd came alive, Cobb uncorked two nice runs and it was first down Kentucky at the UT 13.
The Vols dug in, though, and the Wildcats settled for a 23-yard field goal from former Central standout Lones Seiber.
At 24-24 with 35 seconds left, Kiffin was content to let it go to overtime.
On this field two years ago, the Vols and Cats fought through four overtimes before Tennessee prevailed.
This time it took but one.
Tennessee went on defense first at the 25. Eric Berry tackled Locke for a 6-yard loss and Seiber missed a 49-yard field goal.
The Vols' turn started poorly with a holding penalty. But Crompton found Gerald Jones for 14 yards to the 20.
On third-and-5, Hardesty slashed through a gap and ran to the end zone.
"Obviously,'' said Kiffin, "we're pleased with the outcome, for our players to make so many plays down the stretch.
"I wish it wouldn't have come to that.''
So did Stocker, a Kentuckian who had five catches for 78 yards prior to the fumble.
"The defense bailed me out,'' he said.
In this rivalry, it seems Tennessee always finds a way to bail out a win in the end.
That's 25 in a row - if anybody were keeping count.
Well, it seems someone was:
"This is a great feeling,'' said senior offensive lineman Jacques McClendon.
"Being a senior you have pride in what you do and that's to finish the Tennessee-Kentucky rivalry.
"Since I've been born, Tennessee ain't been beat. That streak wasn't going to end on me.''