Neyland Stadium, aka the Garbage Truck Worker Convention, was the site today of the 26th loss in a row for the Kentucky Wildcats to the dreaded Tennessee Volunteers. There were specific reasons as to why the Cats lost yet another heartbreaker in Knoxville, and we will of course get to those, but in reality the story was the same this year as in year’s past. The Cats were outworked, outcoached, outplayed and generally outclassed to a team that for one of the few years of the Streak, they could compare favorably against from a talent perspective. Kentucky came into the game talking all the right talk. The number “517” was supposed to showcase that the team understood what had happened in the past and how it was to be different this year. But in the end, this game was just like all the others. The Cats lost, UK fans were left with excuses and Tennessee celebrated its utter and complete domination of a program, the likes of which have only happened a few times in college football history.
There are many reasons why the game ended the way it did, but as we look back, five stand out:
Kentucky kicked the ball off to start the game and looked set to make noise in Knoxville after a quick three and out and a long drive down the field leading to a 7-0 lead. Another quick stop and the Cats had the ball with a chance to put a crippling blow on the home team and potentially erase the demons that have haunted the Big Blue since the Reagan era. But then with Kentucky on the precipice of a touchdown, Hartline fumbled the exchange to Derrick Locke and the Cats fumbled into the end zone to lose all of the game’s momentum. The battle was never the same. Tennessee quickly drove down the field and scored, and any semblance of control that the Cats had over the Vols was lost, never to be regained. You dont lose games based on one play…but you might lose the chance to put a vice grip on a game in one play. And the Hartline/Cobb fumble will always be remembered as the moment the game began to slip away.
The Defense for Kentucky has struggled all season and most of the time the reason has been obvious. With little pressure from the front four, Kentucky has rarely gotten to the QB and has seen teams run all over it throughout the SEC campaign. Today however was different. The front four actually played quite well and Ronnie Sneed had his best game as a Cat at LB, causing some pressure on Tyler Bray and generally slowing the UT running attack. But what was gained by the big uglies was lost by the dreadlocked Secondary who found themselves torched on play after play. Three huge 40 yard plus passes in the first half and a number of beaten routes in the second, caused the Vols to throw all over the UK back four and essentially dominate an area where UK had previously shown promise. Winston Guy and Mychal Bailey both had Interceptions that were important, but the routes they lost more than surpassed these shining moments of glory with a general overall day of gloom.
The Missed Opportunities
Mike Hartline has played much better this season than his critics will ever give him credit for, and has generally been a bright spot for the Big Blue, regardless of what the message boards might say. But today was not one of his crowning achievements. He had 5-7 passes that all were just a bit off and in so doing, missed opportunities to pull off the big upset. Larod King twice broke open for long pass plays, only to have Hartline miss him by a step (although one did wonder how one of the plays did not lead to a King dive for the reception). Hartline threw it behind Randall Cobb twice, Derrick Locke once and missed Chris Matthews on a deep ball that could have been seven. It wasnt that Hartline played poorly…but he didnt play good enough to overcome the other deficiencies. When you are trying to break a 25 year streak, the QB has to give you more than that.
Both teams turned the ball over a number of times and gave the other team a chance to capitalize on its mistakes. But for Kentucky, those turnovers came at times where UK needed a big run. The Randall Cobb fumble, the Mike Hartline interception and the Craig McIntosh missed field goal (which I count as a turnover), all came during drives where UK needed points on the board in the worst way. None of the turnovers broke the team’s back, but all added up to missed opportunites that helped seal the Cats’ fate.
I can complain about Joker Phillips’ game management all day and at times I have done that for both he and his coordinators. But even with the lack of blitzing from Steve Brown or the downfield passing from Randy Sanders, the differences were ones of philosophy and ultimately defendable. But I will have a hard time forgiving the decision by Joker Phillips to punt on the Tennessee 38 yard line in the 4th quarter. Facing 4th and 2 and a chance to go in for the tying touchdown, Joker looked at his offense and essentially said he didnt believe in them by punting to a UT team that got the ball after only an 18 yard field position change. With four of your five best players on the offensive side of the ball (Cobb, Locke, Matthews and Hartline…as opposed to Trevathan on defense), your offense is the strength of your team. To not give them the chance to win the game…well it showcases a Coach playing not to lose and not giving the aggression needed fo the big upset. It happened last year when Randall Cobb didnt touch the ball on First and Goal and again today on a weak decision to punt. That is not an easy one to forget.
So now the Cats are left with disappointment once again and questions as to what is next. They will know their Bowl game soon enough and likely will see a destination in either Birmingham or Atlanta. A game versus South Florida at Legion Field may not be sexy, but is probably appropriate for a team that left a lot of wins on the field. One can be upset or angry, but for me it is unfortunately a worse emotion….one of resignation. Its Tennessee vs Kentucky again and for the 26th time in a row, the team in Orange won. Some say it was once different.