Tennessee Stat Book
Two teams winless in the SEC filed into Neyland Stadium on Saturday behind lame-duck coaching staffs. The Tennessee-Kentucky border rivalry has seen better days over its 108-game history.
But for the Vols at least, smiles and relief prevailed over regret — in a runaway.
A gut-wrenching week ended in the best possible manner for Tennessee. The Vols won a football game.
"A lot of adversity hit us, a lot of negative things,'' senior tight end Mychal Rivera said following a 37-17 win. "Sometimes you've got to play the cards that you're dealt and push on.
"This week we had a goal to win. We weren't thinking about coaches or any of that.''
Six days after Derek Dooley was relieved of command, the team he coached for nearly three seasons fulfilled a simple mission:
Send the seniors out on a winning note.
By atypically dominating the second half, UT avoided dubious history — the program's first eight-loss season.
A season that began with great optimism ended 5-7, 1-7 SEC. A bowl game was off the table after the loss at Vanderbilt last week.
Kentucky (2-10, 0-8 SEC) hung around until halftime then consumed half the third quarter with a 15-play drive for a Craig McIntosh field goal to cut Tennessee's lead to 20-17.
That was enough to spook a crowd that was announced at 81,841 but looked more like 60,000. After all, they're still
haunted by the 10-7 loss in Lexington last year against a similarly forlorn Kentucky team.
Not to worry. Tyler Bray flipped a couple of touchdown passes before the third quarter was done and that was that.
The Wildcats could not muster a response for outgoing coach Joker Phillips, who joins Dooley in the well-compensated unemployed coaching ranks.
"My office is emptied out,'' said Phillips. "I have keys to turn in and we're done.
"We'll get on the bus and watch some college football on the way home.''
Ditto for Tennessee, minus the bus ride.
"This was definitely about the players,'' said Jim Chaney, who assumed the title of interim head coach last Sunday when athletic director Dave Hart fired Dooley.
"You have two lame-duck staffs. Today was the purest form of players versus players you can find.''
Tennessee's players played better.
The Vols rolled up 457 yards of offense. Bray was 20-of-34 passing for 293 yards in what many assume was his final game in Neyland.
"Who knows?'' he said afterward when asked.
A junior, Bray has the option to apply for the NFL draft. If he does, he leaves with 68 career touchdown passes.
Of the four he threw Saturday, he implied (perhaps seriously) he was intentionally distributing them to teammates who won't or at least probably won't be back.
Senior Zach Rogers got his, a 21-yarder on UT's opening possession. Rivera got his, a 29-yarder in the third quarter to make it 27-17.
A couple of juniors widely expected to turn pro got theirs too.
Justin Hunter's turn came on a 42-yarder in the second quarter. Hunter also had a 33-yard TD catch wiped off by a holding penalty on tackle Tiny Richardson.
Cordarrelle Patterson's 21-yard catch put UT up 34-17 in the third quarter and was noteworthy in that Patterson wasn't penalized for taunting.
Patterson's afternoon included 88 yards receiving, 38 rushing and 32 on kickoff returns. His season measures up at 1,858 yards, breaking Reggie Cobb's 1987 school record for all-purpose yardage.
Linebacker A.J. Johnson reprised his end-zone-crasher role with a 2-yard touchdown run. That's six touchdowns in 11 carries on the year.
Johnson's day job is defense. He was credited with 14 tackles and a sack.
Offensively challenged Kentucky amassed 412 yards, 106 above its season average.
Alcoa High School product D.J. Warren scored on a 1-yard pass from Jalen Whitlow to tie the game 7-7 early. In a scene familiar to UT-watchers, Jonathan George popped a 45-yard TD run in the second quarter.
But the Wildcats had only 148 yards and the McIntosh field goal in the second half.
UT's defense stopped Kentucky on fourth-down tries three times — there would have been a fourth if not for a defensive penalty.
"It's been a long year with a lot of different things going on,'' said defensive end Jordan Williams, "so we just got after it.''
Chaney, the offensive coordinator, laughed off the suggestion that he helped with defensive adjustments. He was just relieved to get through the game without any interim-head coaching gaffes.
"It was fun,'' he said. "There were things pop up that you never think about when you're sitting there.
"If I'd had to do a replay or challenge something, that would have been interesting.''
Now the focus turns to Hart's coaching search and, in turn, what has to be done to restore Tennessee's fortunes so that the Vols aren't playing to avoid a historic eighth loss ever again.
But Saturday wasn't the time for big-picture reflection.
"I'm happy we won a ballgame,'' Chaney said. "That's where my brain's at.''