A season that was a loss ends with a win for Tennessee, 37-17

Adam Brimer/News Sentinel
Tennessee wide receiver Justin Hunter reacts after scoring a touchdown in the second quarter against Kentucky at Neyland Stadium on Saturday.

Photo by Adam Brimer, Knoxville News Sentinel

Adam Brimer/News Sentinel Tennessee wide receiver Justin Hunter reacts after scoring a touchdown in the second quarter against Kentucky at Neyland Stadium on Saturday.

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.''

Mike Strange may be reached at strangem@knoxnews.com. Follow him at http://twitter.com/strangemike44 and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/strange

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Comments » 19

hereandthere writes:

Well, I'm a CAT fan so I have a high level of pain tolerance. I kind of watch this site and I remember five years ago when Joker was named, "Coach in waiting" some Vol fan made the comment that in four or five years Joker would be 2 - 10 and would be out. I thought, "Old Feller, you sure hit that'n on the nail head". We knew five years ago what was coming but we could not do a thing about it. If UK could have gotten 40,000 people to show up for the Vandy blowout we would have had him another year. UK & UT have had some good games in the last ten years although the Vols are on the long end. I hope we can both put these nightmares behind us and enjoy some football.

OLROCKYTOP writes:

I was at the game today and the jumbotron flashed up an alarming stat they made me wonder. This team scored the third most total points in Tennessee Football history. How much different would the season have been had Wilcox stayed and if we would have had just a mediocre defense? I can't wait for next season to start. Go Vols!!!

JonGrudensAgent writes:

Nice job by Chaney and a good win for a group of seniors who have persevered through one of the most challenging stretches the UT program has ever seen.

Best of luck to the coaching staff that stuck around for the game and the graduating players.

Dalton writes:

This season wore me out...as my wife clocked SIX "This is a boring game...look no one's even at the game" I stubbornly watched here in DFW...Happy..no ECSTATIC that my team was the SEC Game of the Week on channel 21...I'll get my excitement from the coaching search and signing day but Vol fans are there every step of the way...WE STEP UP!!! GO VOLS

rabblerowser writes:

in response to Dalton:

This season wore me out...as my wife clocked SIX "This is a boring game...look no one's even at the game" I stubbornly watched here in DFW...Happy..no ECSTATIC that my team was the SEC Game of the Week on channel 21...I'll get my excitement from the coaching search and signing day but Vol fans are there every step of the way...WE STEP UP!!! GO VOLS

So why all those empty seats today. Looks like ther're about the same as fans in other losing programs. They get tired of watching the losses and stay home. Who can blame them?

GainesvilleVol1 writes:

Happy we won, at least the players at Neyland for the last time go out with something positive. They have been through the ringer, much more than we the fans. No quick fix that I can see, even Gruden or Saben if he were to come have their work cut out for them. This has been such an emotional season, glad it's over, but I know I will miss UT football starting tomorrow.

GO VOLS BUILD THE FUTURE!!

Dalton writes:

in response to rabblerowser:

So why all those empty seats today. Looks like ther're about the same as fans in other losing programs. They get tired of watching the losses and stay home. Who can blame them?

80000 in a losing season against Kentucky?...I think the U would date you for that attendance...in a winning season

UTByrd writes:

in response to OLROCKYTOP:

I was at the game today and the jumbotron flashed up an alarming stat they made me wonder. This team scored the third most total points in Tennessee Football history. How much different would the season have been had Wilcox stayed and if we would have had just a mediocre defense? I can't wait for next season to start. Go Vols!!!

I totally agree.
As Doris Day would sing, "Kay sera, sera,"...
Go VOLS!!!!!

volthrunthru#658770 writes:

For the first time in my lifetime, I do not care very much at all what happens to UT sports.

The people in charge have been so incompetent that I have lost almost all sense of pride and identification with the school.

The entire University sports programs have proved to be a disgrace to taxpayers in Tennesssee:

Mike Hamilton could not have been a worse hire if someone had tried to employ the worst of the worst. Hamilton's hires are the gift that keep on giving, in all areas.

underthehill writes:

in response to volthrunthru#658770:

For the first time in my lifetime, I do not care very much at all what happens to UT sports.

The people in charge have been so incompetent that I have lost almost all sense of pride and identification with the school.

The entire University sports programs have proved to be a disgrace to taxpayers in Tennesssee:

Mike Hamilton could not have been a worse hire if someone had tried to employ the worst of the worst. Hamilton's hires are the gift that keep on giving, in all areas.

Mike Hamilton did not hire Sunseri..I think Mr. Dave Hart did..seems folks have judged Hamilton..the jury is still out on Hart...so far he looks worse than Hamilton to me..

Vol_USArmy_Soldier writes:

It's not a NC, but it's still a good win for our seniors and for Chaney. The team had every right to throw in the towel.

We even made adjustments in the second half!

The STREAK resumes.

vols2016 writes:

in response to OLROCKYTOP:

I was at the game today and the jumbotron flashed up an alarming stat they made me wonder. This team scored the third most total points in Tennessee Football history. How much different would the season have been had Wilcox stayed and if we would have had just a mediocre defense? I can't wait for next season to start. Go Vols!!!

I was thinking the same thing. We could easily be 10-2 and believing Dooley is the future of UT. It's just funny how things turn out. I'm excited for next season too! Go Vols and go Coach _____ _____!!!

FWBVol writes:

in response to volthrunthru#658770:

For the first time in my lifetime, I do not care very much at all what happens to UT sports.

The people in charge have been so incompetent that I have lost almost all sense of pride and identification with the school.

The entire University sports programs have proved to be a disgrace to taxpayers in Tennesssee:

Mike Hamilton could not have been a worse hire if someone had tried to employ the worst of the worst. Hamilton's hires are the gift that keep on giving, in all areas.

Tax payers don't fund the University of Tennessee athletic program that money comes from revenues brought in by the athletic department and by donations from Volunteer fans.

Yes, Mike Hamilton made some horrible hires and he turned out to be 0-2 in hiring football coaches. And his worst hire was probably Todd Raleigh as the baseball coach.

Hamilton did however make a couple of good hires in basketball. Bruce Pearl would still be coaching if he hadn't lied to the NCAA. And, I think, Cuonzo Martin is going to do a super job with the basketball program for years to come.

Contrary to what some people might think, I don't believe the football program is that far from being back in the mix.

Fryinpansvols writes:

in response to volthrunthru#658770:

For the first time in my lifetime, I do not care very much at all what happens to UT sports.

The people in charge have been so incompetent that I have lost almost all sense of pride and identification with the school.

The entire University sports programs have proved to be a disgrace to taxpayers in Tennesssee:

Mike Hamilton could not have been a worse hire if someone had tried to employ the worst of the worst. Hamilton's hires are the gift that keep on giving, in all areas.

Hang in there fellow Vol fan! Things will get better, it certaintly can't get much worse. I think Dave Hart will hire us a coach that will turn our football program back into a winner and a team that will be competing for SEC Championships. We have made it through a very rough stretch of 4 years now lets look to the future. GBO!

Fryinpansvols writes:

in response to underthehill:

Mike Hamilton did not hire Sunseri..I think Mr. Dave Hart did..seems folks have judged Hamilton..the jury is still out on Hart...so far he looks worse than Hamilton to me..

Actually Derek Dooley hired Sal Sunseri. Athletic Directors hire Head Coaches not their assistants. If you have listened to Dave Hart's press conference last week you would have known that. And yes Mike Hamilton was a terrible AD. GBO!

Fryinpansvols writes:

in response to OLROCKYTOP:

I was at the game today and the jumbotron flashed up an alarming stat they made me wonder. This team scored the third most total points in Tennessee Football history. How much different would the season have been had Wilcox stayed and if we would have had just a mediocre defense? I can't wait for next season to start. Go Vols!!!

Actually, according to Rob Lewis of Volquest it was the second most points in a season by a Tennessee offense. The most in a season was by the 1993 squad with 471 points and second was this year's group with 434 points. But I catch your drift about having a terrible defense. The Sal Sunseri hire a terrible hire by Derek Dooley. Why did Dooley change from a 4-3 to a 3-4, when all of the players on defense were recruited to a 4-3 system? Anyhow, heres to a new coach and a new start. GBO!

AnyMouse69 writes:

Vols win their final game of the season, and Lane Kiffin lost!

erniethecatladd writes:

Why do AD's give these huge buyouts to these coaches. That seems like a bonus for failure. I say make the coaches contract based on performance and results.

AnyMouse69 writes:

in response to erniethecatladd:

Why do AD's give these huge buyouts to these coaches. That seems like a bonus for failure. I say make the coaches contract based on performance and results.

The school that starts only paying for performance is the one that won't be able to hire a coach.

Too many other schools are willing to make guaranteed payoffs a part of their contracts.

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