Walking towards Neyland Stadium on a blissful late-autumn morning yesterday, a man standing by his orange and white checkered pickup, decked out it overalls offered my friend and I a cherry from his jar of moonshine.
“Cats fans! Eat one of these bad boys.” The hillbilly said, offering up the cherry bomb with his calloused and oil stained hands.
It was 11am, and little did we want our first taste of the sauce that day to be a shot of mountain dew. Even worse however, would be to decline the offer, thus painting a picture of UK fans being a bunch of patsy’s. So for the sake of the bluegrass, we manned up. Little did I know, that cherry bomb would not be the hardest thing I would have to swallow yesterday.
Sitting in Neyland, a tiny blue tick on the massive ear of a golden retriever, I had that feeling. You know, the one us UK football fans get when things are going good. The one that simply denies you of full-blown excitement as you wait earnestly for the customary choke. But yesterday. Yesterday was different. Kentucky not only outplayed Tennessee, they out-physical’ed them as well. Cheering for LeMarcus Coker’s KO in the first quarter didn’t make us many friends at Neyland, but for the first time in a long time, I felt like Kentucky belonged. We belonged in the SEC, and we showed it by finally playing SEC punch-you-in-the-mouth-no-apologies football. We blitzed. Hell, we even disguised one here and there. Erik Ainge was about as comfortable in the pocket as Michael Richards in Compton. His only TD pass was meant for the second row behind the endzone, but somehow found the hands of a wide open receiver.
Say what you want about Joker’s redzone selections, he and Randy Sanders called a beautiful game. Tennessee killer Jacob Tamme was presumably not discussed much during UT film sessions last week, but made good on several well executed tight end screens. Woodson was a crisp as ever, putting the ball where only his receiver could make a play. The collective groans mixed with complete silence as Kentucky cut through the UT defense like butter in the first half, was a symphony to these ears. It kind of sounded like being in Rupp Arena.
Sitting in Commonwealth Saturday upon Saturday had ruined me for halftime shows. However, I found myself genuinely entertained by UT’s production. They parodied the twelve days of Christmas, replacing “partridge in a pear tree” with “a sweatproof suit for Bruce Pearl.” Fun for all ages, indeed.
With Kentucky up 12-10 at the half, I strutted to the bathroom with a shell of cockiness; an attempt to hide my inner-anxiety. I’ve been to this dance before. Kentucky gets a lead on a big team, they’re playing flawless, textbook football, the opponent is stymied and appears ready to quit. Then, we hand them the game like it’s an envelope of anthrax.
But as the second half paced on, Kentucky continued to out-play and (ghast) out-couch the Vols. Fulmer continued, for whatever reason, to throw the football although Ainge was as accurate as Howard Dean’s grip on reality. Then Joker reaffirmed my faith in UK football with a wretched halfback draw on 4th and 2 from the UT 35. As much as you’d want that play to work, how could you be so naieve Joker? Nonetheless, the defense continued to do their job, and the offense continued to march.
As the fourth quarter raged on, and Kentucky appeared destined for victory, my friend and I were relishing in the prospect of having to run out of Neyland with our lives at stake. We were going to be every bit as obnoxious as a win on senior day in Knoxville would most certainly warrant.
Delay of game. Son of a bitch. Another fruitless trip inside the 10, and another Kentucky loss at the hands of the Vols. The “y’all deserved to win” contrition from those in orange did little to mend my spirits. It’s like a girl telling you she’s attracted to you for your sense of humor. This one would take some serious recovery time. For a win in Neeyland would have thrust UK into 2nd place in the vaunted SEC east, penciled the Cats into a New Year’s Day bowl, and put this program ahead by at least 2 years. Alas, all Kentucky came home with was “respect”, and a likely salvation of Mike Archer’s job. A double whammy.
You can put the blame on Joker Phillips and the staff for 5 trips in the redzone and only 12 points to show for it. You can blame Lones Sieber for being a “freakin’ kicker.” After all, if he makes that 35 yarder in the first half, UK has a chip shot to win it at the end. But the bottom line is UK managed to outplay Tennessee on senior day, and in the process, they did something not seen since the days of Artose and Guy…they played SEC football.