The Streak Turns Silver
The self-proclaimed biggest game ever played for a generation of Kentucky football fans in front of 70,981 turned into more of the same Saturday night:
- A dog-fight of a Boarder-State Rivalry War; and
- A Tennessee victory.
With a win on Saturday, Kentucky would have fulfilled a string of significant accomplishments for their improving program under coach Rich Brooks.
- An 8-4 regular season, the first 8-win regular season since 1984.
- A second place finish in the SEC East for the first time since the realignment of the conference in 1992 and best SEC finish since 1977 (when they tied for first with Alabama).
- A likely New Years’ Day bowl date for the first time since the 1998 season (Outback Bowl, Jan 1, 1999 vs Penn State).
- And perhaps, most importantly, an end to The Streak – 24 consecutive losses to their bitter, long-time, border state rival.
But, would have didn’t materialize.
In a world of change, some things don’t. Like Kentucky losing to Tennessee on the gridiron. But there were some other constants.
For Kentucky on Saturday, Randall Cobb didn’t change (at least for the first half). He did exactly what was expected – striking fear in the heart of every Vol with his multi-faceted play of rushing (18 carries/101 yards/1 TD), receiving (4 catches/24 yards), passing (1-3/31 yards), returning kicks (1 return for 43 yards) and returning punts (1 return for 18 yards). Kentucky fans have a lot to look forward in his next two seasons in blue.
For Tennessee on Saturday, the Vol’s 2009 season MVP Montario Hardesty didn’t change. He ran, ran some more, and then on the last play of the game ran the Big Orange to an SEC East second-place finish and a bowl berth the Wildcats were hoping to attain. Last week against Vandy, the Vol senior RB ran for a career-high 171 yards on 32 carries and a TD. Saturday, Montario outdid himself with 39 carries and 179 more yards. He now has a net 1306 yards rushing on the season (1366 yards actually gained), which puts him deservedly as one of the greatest single-season Vol rushers of all time. And one of my personal favorite Tennessee running backs ever.
This game wasn’t the classic of two years ago – it didn’t have four overtimes, it didn’t have a Vol QB throwing 7 TD passes, it didn’t have a string of dramatic plays with the SEC East crown hanging in the balance. But it certainly had passion and pride on both sides of the ball, fitting for this rivalry that began on October 21, 1893 as only the ninth game played by The University of Tennessee.
Some other items deserve a highlight.
The new Jonathan Crompton continued to perform. On the Vols very first possession, Jonathan made a mis-read and threw a pick-six, reminding us of the old Jonathan. But on the Vols’ first play of the very next possession, Jonathan saw a certain coverage by the Kentucky defense, called an audible, and threw a strike to Jones to get a drive going that ended in a quick Tennessee TD to answer Kentucky’s first punch. Very cool.
Crompton ended his last SEC game 13-for-23 for 220 yards passing and a TD (with the INT). He finishes the 2009 regular season with stunning numbers when remembering the old Jonathan Crompton. This year Jonathan was 209 of 358 passing for 2565 yards, 26 TDs and 12 INTs (only 3 in the last 6 games). In eight of his 12 games he threw for more than 200 yards passing. What a difference a year makes. I never thought I would say this, but Jonathan, I will miss you.
Cornerback Dennis Rogan came up with a very big play down the stretch. Late in the 4th quarter, after Kentucky gained possession in Vol territory from a Luke Stocker fumble, Wildcat QB Morgan Newton on a huge 3rd and 5 at the Tennessee 8 yard line tried to run it, but Rogan got enough of the Kentucky QB to stop the ‘Cats short of the promised land and forced them into a decision to kick a game-tying field goal and send the game into OT. Good for us.
LB Rico McCoy led the Vols with 13 tackles and forced a key fumble that led to a Vol field goal and our first lead of the evening.
And let’s not forget to give a shout to Eric Berry. The Vol junior safety, likely playing in his final SEC game, once again was unable to get his interception return yardage necessary to break the all-time NCAA record. But, in addition to his eight tackles on the evening, he made a huge play in overtime. Kentucky had possession first in OT. On an option to the right on 2nd and 10, ‘Cat RB Derrick Locke got the pitch, and Berry, following the play all the way, got just enough of Locke for a 6 yard loss to lock down the ‘Cats’ chances. But Eric wasn’t done. On 3rd and 16, Berry broke up a pass, forcing a FG attempt that failed.
This wasn’t a great performance by a great Tennessee team against a great opponent. Far, far from it on all three accounts. But it was a win to avoid a 6-6 regular season mark, thus giving us a winning season in Lane Kiffin’s first season. And I am very thankful for a 7-5 record and 2nd place in the SEC East on this Thanksgiving Holiday weekend. Very thankful.
Now onto the game summary…
Kentucky come out running hot. So hot that on their first possession of the game, a dead-ball personal foul on a ‘Cat OT turns a 2nd and 3 into a 2nd and 18 from which they can’t recover. But it doesn’t matter. The Vols get possession on the Wildcats’ punt, gain a first down on the running of Hardesty. And then on a 3rd and 2 near midfield, Vol QB Jonathan Crompton delivers a late turkey to ‘Cat LB Sam Maxwell who gathers the bird at his own 44 and runs all of the 56 yards down the sideline for the early go-ahead score. The Commonwealth overflowing at 70,000+ is in danger of falling down. Kentucky 7 Tennessee 0.
Ah, Lones Seiber. He does a Chad Cunningham impersonation by booting the kickoff out-of-bounds (he must have soiled his pants when he saw the “Eric Berry Surprise” waiting at the goal line) to let the Vols hit from the Ladies’ Tee at the UT 40. Pull out the driver. Bang. Center cut. Crompton hits Vols’ Receiver-of-2009 Gerald Jones for 30 to the UK 30. Pull out the 6-iron. Bang. Nice positional play. Denarius Moore takes the pill 21 yards to the UK 9 (ok, there was a fumble, but we got it back). 27-footer remaining with a slight left break. Bang. All-Vol Mantario Hardesty gobbles up the remaining gridiron. One minute, seven seconds. BANG! Kentucky 7 Tennessee 7.
UK go three-and-out due in large part to Wes Brown dropping ‘Cat running back Derrick Locke for a loss on 2nd and 4. But the Vols do the same, starting in a hole as Crompton is sacked by DeQuin Evans for a loss of 6 yards on first down.
So now it’s time for the Cobb and Locke show to finish out the first quarter. With the Vols at their own 18, 4th and 13, Chad Cunningham booms a punt 54 yards, a dangerous play when Randall Cobb is waiting and the ball is soaring beyond coverage. Cobb takes it at his own 28 and motors for 18 to the UK 46. You get the feeling it’s gonna be a back-and-forth night. Hold on, here we go. Cobb runs for 15. Cobb runs for 3. Locke runs for 5. Cobb runs for 1, stopped by Eric Berry and Willie Bohannon. ‘Cats 4th and 1 at the Vol 30. Big, early moment. Cobb gets 2. No problem. Now it’s Cobb for 5, then 6, then Locke for nothing thanks for Rico McCoy. UK takes a TO with 0:15 left in the opening quarter, 2nd and 5. It’s a reverse. It’s Cobb. There is a wall of blue. There’s virtually no white uniforms to block. It’s a perfect reverse. It’s another ‘Cat TD. It’s a Kentucky lead after the opening quarter, and you get that sinking feeling that we will not be able to stop this guy. Kentucky 14 Tennessee 7.
Eric Berry returns the kickoff 26 yards as the opening quarter expires, and Crompton hits Luke Stocker for 20 to near mid-field to get us back to motorin’ downfield. But we stall as the ‘Cat defense are able to clamp down on Hardesty and stop Crompton’s 3rd and 7 pass attempt. UK now turn to their freshman QB Morgan Newton on their next drive. He opens with a 9-yard completion to Randall Cobb (who else), but follows with three incompletions mixed with a Cobb 4-yard run and a nice 17-yard run by John Conner. But the ‘Cats can’t get past mid-field. Tennessee are backed up at their own 4 yard line on a Ryan Tydlacka punt and go three-and-out. Chad Cunningham get the Vols out of jail with a 50 yard punt from the end zone helped out by a 10-yard holding penalty backing Kentucky to their own 31. The “Cats can’t get a drive sustained, neither can the Vols, then the Vols get a forced break. On the next ‘Cat possession, Morgan Newton on 3rd and 7 runs for no gain but fumbles forced by big Wes Brown, and at the bottom of a big pile is Tennessee’s Willie Bohannon with the ball.
Crompton, starting from the Vol 34, hits Gerald Jones for 18, and then on a 3rd and 8, drills it to Denarius Moore for another 18-yard gain to get the drive deep into Kentucky territory. Then it’s all Vols on the ground. Bryce Brown for 6 and then 2, teeing it up for the OL and Montario, who rushes for 7 and then a hard-fightin’ 13 into the Wildcat end zone to even up the Border War with 3:54 left in the half. Kentucky 14 Tennessee 14.
But as Randall Cobb goes, so goes the Kentucky Wildcats. Cobb collects the short Chad Cunningham kickoff at the UK 17 (he seemed to mis-hit the ball because the ball fluttered) and with a 43-yard return to the Vol 40. You just know we’re just a few moments from the ‘Cats regaining the lead.
But it looks like Monte’s D will hold when Morgan Newton on 3rd and 8 hits Derrick Locke on a screen pass for 11 yards to the Vol 38. Then it’s Josh Conner for an 8-yard run, and one play later, Newton hits Locke again, this time for 15 yards to the Vol 7 where Vol LB Herman Lathers saved a TD, and the whole of Lexington seems to smell the end of the 24-game nightmare. It’s Randall Cobb for 6, setting it up for Derrick Locke’s 1 yard push for the go-ahead TD with less than a minute left in the half. Kentucky 21 Tennessee 14.
But as it turns out, the Vols have enough time. Craig McIntosh’s kickoff is a squibber, gathered by Sam Edgmon and pushed upfield to the Vol 38. Good field position. On 2nd and 10, Crompton hits Hardesty for 13 for a 1st, who then runs for 5 (which seemingly runs some valuable time off the clock). Vols call a T.O. with 0:12 left at the UK 44. Then, Crompton is flushed out of the backfield and scampers out-of bounds just before the quarter runs out and just far enough to give Cunningham a chance for a field goal. Crompton could have gotten more yardage, but smartly had his eye on the clock – more yards would have ended the half. But Chad’s 49-yard attempt misses left and the Vols settle for a single-TD deficit at the break.
HALFTIME SCORE: Kentucky 21 Tennessee 14.
The Vols begin the second half at their own 27 and are able to sustain a drive primarily because of the ability of Crompton to find Gerald Jones for two big plays, a 12-yard gain on 2nd and 7, and then a 39-yard play on 1st down from midfield to get the Vols inside the UK 10. Crompton also kept hope alive with an 11-yard run on 3rd and 11 from the Vol 41. But after a Hardesty 7-yard run on 3rd and goal from the UK 8, the call is a Crompton roll-out that results in no gain, handing the ball back to the ‘Cats at their own 1 yard line. Hmmm…
But fortunately for the Orange, the ‘Cats couldn’t get it past their own 18, which was a bit of foreshadowing of what the Vol Defense was able to do to the explosive Kentucky ground attack in the second half.
With good field position at their own 38, the Vols almost stab themselves in the eye with a personal foul on Chris Scott creating a 2nd and 18 situation at the Tennessee 30. But Jonathan Crompton hits Luke Stocker resulting in a first down, refueling the drive. Now it’s Hardesty’s turn. A 10-yard run, a 4-yard rush, and another 10 yarder brings the Vols to the UK 16. Pass time. Crompton to Stocker for the score, and we’re even once again. This one is starting to look like a heavyweight fight that Lane Kiffin was prepping his troops for with those Ali films. Kentucky 21 Tennessee 21.
Time to get an opportunistic turnover, don’t you think? Rico McCoy thought so. On the first play of UK’s next possession, Rico puts his hat on the ball when in Randall Cobb’s hands. LaMarcus Thompson is on that baby at the UK 28. Just what the doctor ordered. But the ‘Cat defense stiffens and Vol walk-on PK Devin Mathis has to remain perfect for his very short season to make the turnover the least bit opportunistic. He does with a 30-yard FG and the Vols have their first lead of the game with less than a minute remaining in the third quarter. Tennessee 24 Kentucky 21.
Kentucky do better on their next possession: they don’t fumble the ball away on the first play and also get a first down. But they don’t get the ball past their own 41 yard line. Janzen Jackson, fresh off of missing three games for two separate off-field incidents, gets to ‘Cat QB Morgan Newton on a 3rd and 5 for a 11-yard sack/loss in the early moments of the final quarter. The Vols, starting from their own 24, get two first downs, relying almost entirely on the running of Hardesty, but have to punt it away to Kentucky before getting the ball to midfield. But once again, the Vol defense smothers the ‘Cats who have to start from their own 7 yard line, limiting them to a lone first down and penetration to only their 24 yard line. The Vols, starting with decent field position at their own 43, are assisted with a UK pass interference infraction giving the Orange a 1st and 10 at the ‘Cat 39, but the Vols get a net minus one yard on three straight Hardesty carries. No worries. Kentucky’s offense has completely turned impotent in the second half and go three-and-out on three Morgan Newton incompletions.
It’s beginning to look like the Vols could actually run out the clock and win this thing with four minutes left.
The Vols get possession on a Kentucky punt at the UT 28. Hardesty rushes for 3 and then Crompton hits Luke Stocker at about the Wildcat 40 where Ashton Cobb gets his helmet on the ball, which pops right out of Luke’s grasp, and the Kentucky native Vol is hoping a white jersey gets there before he has to make plans to never return to the Bluegrass State for fear of having to live with explaining for the rest of his life how he helped end the streak.
Now the ‘Cats are all of a sudden sitting on the Vol 37 yard line with 3:12 left in the game, down 3 points, and seem ready to stick a knife in the back of the Big Orange and twist it with relish. But the hope you have right now is that up to now in the second half, the ‘Cats have done absolutely nothing offensively, not getting the ball past their own 41 yard line until now because of Stocker’s fumble in Vol territory.
You just know what’s coming.
First play – Randall Cobb runs for 13 yards and a first down. Second play – Randall Cobb runs for 9 yards to the UT 15. Third play – Randall Cobb runs for 2 yards and a 1st and 10 at the Tennessee 13. Fourth play – Randall Cobb runs for 3 yards to the Vol 10. Second down and seven, 01:16 left in regulation. Timeout, Kentucky.
Cobb must be tired. Derrick Locke gets a handoff and gets 2 yards, setting up a huge 3rd and 5 at the Tennessee 8 yard line. Morgan Newton runs, but Dennis Rogan comes up big by getting enough of the Kentucky QB to stop the ‘Cats short of the promised land.
Huge stop. Timeout Kentucky. Now there’s only 0:37 left with a 4th and 3 at the Vol 6 yard line. Kentucky decides to go for the tie and let OT decide the length of the Streak.
Lones Seiber is good on his 23-yard FG attempt, the Vols run out the clock, and a second-consecutive overtime in the Commonwealth will decide this 90th edition of the Border State Rivalry game. Tennessee 24 Kentucky 24.
Kentucky got to show their hand first in the overtime. inexplicably, Randall Cobb doesn’t touch the ball. Morgan Newton opens with an incomplete pass to Moncell Allen.
Then, All-World SS Eric Berry comes up BIG. On an option to the right, Derrick Locke gets the pitch and Berry, following the play all the way, gets just enough of Locke for a 6 yard loss to lock down the Cat’s chances. But Eric wasn’t done. On 3rd and 16, Berry breaks up a pass from Newton intended for Chris Matthews.
So that leaves it to Lones Seiber to convert on a 49-yarder. And you know he’s going to miss. Which he does.
Huge advantage Vols, except that we have a similar problem from the PK position.
Now where have our friends the Sullins Twins been with drive-killing penalties? Waiting for OT I guess. On the first play, brother Cody gets called for holding, so it’s 1st and 20 at the UK 35. Good thing the ‘Cats gave us a freebie to experiment.
After a 1-yard opener from Hardesty, Jonathan Crompton has a Senior Moment. Standing in the pocket under pressure, he fires a laser bullet to Gerald Jones for a key 14 yard gain to give us a chance with a 3rd and 5 at the UK 20. A miss here and at least we have a 37-yard FG attempt.
No miss here. Nope. It’s MVP time.
Crompton’s Senior Moment is followed by Montario Hardesty’s Signature Moment.
Crompton hands off to Hardesty and in front of him opens up the Cumberland Gap, thanks in part to the Sullins Brothers. Being the MVP that he is, Hardesty darts through in a flash and it’s nothing but open Kentucky space to the endzone. A 20-yard rush through Bluegrass Country that will be Montario’s Moment, defining his season and career as a Tennessee Volunteer.
The game ends just like that.
And, The Streak, turning silver for the moment, continues ad infinitum.