The Bottom of the Beer Barrel
As a Wildcat receiver for four years, senior Matt Roark did little. As Kentucky’s quarterback for a single afternoon, he did what numerous Wildcat quarterbacks could not do for more than a quarter century — beat Tennessee. Matt Roark is now a legend in the annals of Kentucky Wildcat football. His opponents on Saturday are now infamous, having lost their seventh conference game this season, the most conference losses in the annals of Tennessee Volunteer football.
This was the perfect game if you are a neutral fan — most of us when we are neutral about the outcome of a game that we watch will pull for the underdog. This was also the perfect game if you are the writer for a sports magazine or newspaper — the story line with the ending of the longest streak of wins by one team over another in college football, by a team using a wide receiver for a quarterback, is a dream for a scribe.
I’m neither, so it wasn’t the perfect game for me. This one hurts.
It hurts partly because the loss ends the Vols’ 26-game winning streak over Kentucky, partly because it knocks Tennessee out of the bowl picture, and partly because it gives Tennessee their third losing regular season in seven years.
But mostly, it hurts because the loss came in a game that resembled football on the high school level more than major collegiate football. Congratulations are due to Kentucky — they played their hearts out. But that doesn’t hide the fact that this was a bad game played by two bad teams. Full stop.
A wide receiver is called upon to quarterback his first game in his last game in a Kentucky uniform.
Let’s just start with, from the Vols’ perspective, the most insulting part of this game and get it over with right away.
Kentucky has had little success with either of their QBs this season — true freshman Maxwell Smith and junior Morgan Newton. Smith sprained his throwing shoulder last week against Georgia, and Newton hurt his ankle and shoulder on 29 October against Mississippi State.
A couple of bad QBs, both banged up, should mean the Wildcats get nothing from their offense, right?
Well, that’s pretty much what happened. Except it is what little they got with whom that comprises the headlines for this game.
Neither Smith or Newton started. Instead, somebody named Matt Roark, who didn’t warm up with the team during pre-game, filled in for the afternoon to take the snaps for Big Blue. For the most part, he ran around looking like he’d never done this before. In fact, he hadn’t at the collegiate level — he hadn’t since high school. At Cobb County (Georgia) High School, Roark started as a free safety but moved to QB early in his junior year when the team’s starting QB was hurt. He eventually progressed to the point that he became an honorable mention all state as a senior, rushing for over 1,000 yards.
But that’s not all.
His QB coach during his senior year in high school was Tee Martin. Yes, that Tee Martin — current Kentucky assistant coach and Vol hero.
On Saturday, Roark passed for 15 yards (4-for-6). That’s right. Tennessee lost to a team that gained only 15 passing yards.
But Roark ran for 124 yards on 24 carries, more carries and more yards than any of the Kentucky running backs. It all added up to 202 yards on the ground for the Wildcats.
It was Kentucky’s first drive of the game that set the tone for the rest of the afternoon. The Wildcats took over after Tennessee did their first of six three-and-outs. Roark made the Tennessee defense look ill-prepared. And in fact they were. Coming in to this game, nobody expected options and sweeps led by a wide receiver. After 13 rushes and a single pass, the Wildcats had a quick 3-0 lead.
Tennessee’s defense finally adjusted to the point that after the five first downs on that first drive, the Wildcats could muster only five more first downs for the remainder of the game. Three of those additional first downs came on the Wildcat TD drive of the second half that immediately followed the turning-point Tennessee fumble. But the point here is that Kentucky didn’t win this game with their offense. The ineptness of Tennessee’s offense was the fly in Derek Dooley’s ointment.
Raijon Neal could catch a 53-yard bomb for a TD but couldn’t catch a snap from center.
This loss is on the shoulders of everybody that has anything to do with Tennessee’s offense.
Should Tyler Bray have been the starting QB in this game? His less-than-stellar performance last week against Vanderbilt, surely due to his thumb injury and resultant weeks away from action, was a warning. But the fact that the Vols rallied under Bray for the overtime win last week made his selection a no-brainer. However, Bray looked out of sorts on Saturday. He was slow of foot, his passes were erratic, and he seemed, as aptly put by Derek Dooley at halftime, “lethargic.” Bray had the flu for the majority of the week, and he looked like I feel when saddled with flu-like symptoms.
This was simply his worst effort in a Tennessee uniform — 15-for-38 and 215 yards passing, with two interceptions.
The Vols as an offensive unit were completely inept. They were 4-for-15 on third downs, and 0-for-2 on fourth down. More rushing woes certainly didn’t help — an embarrassingly typical 61 total yards on 24 carries for a 2.5 yards-per-carry average.
Yes, Tennessee’s entire rushing attack was surpassed by a single Kentucky wide receiver.
Another blocked Michael Palardy kick was just icing on the spoiled cake.
But it was the Tennessee’s last possession of the third quarter that did the Vols in.
Down 3-0 (the Vols were down 3-0 for what seemed to be an eternity), Tennessee finally entered the Kentucky Red Zone. That’s correct — it took nearly three quarters for the Vols to move the ball on offense to inside the Kentucky 20 yard line.
Tennessee had started their drive on their own 21 yard line. But after only five plays, including two catches by Raijon Neal for 15 and 44 yards, the Vols were first and goal at the Kentucky 8-yard line. Curiously, the coaches chose to call a play for the wildcat formation, with Neal taking the snap.
Neal all but missed the snapped ball, gave an almost confused, lackadasical effort to get it back, and could do nothing but watch as Kent Collins scooped up the fumbled ball for the play of the game.
Full of juice, the Wildcats quickly drove to the Vols’ seven yard line, fueled with runs by Roark of 24 and 26 yards, the last one ending with controversy — the replay clearly showed that Roark fumbled the ball, but the officials somehow determined via replay that a Kentucky player had recovered the fumble (which was not evident from any angle shown on TV replays).
When CoShik Williams followed with a 6-yard rushing touchdown, putting the ‘Cats ahead 10-0, it felt like the end of time.
That is, until Raijon Neal made a very fine catch of a 53-yard pass for a touchdown only seconds later to bring the Vols within three points.
But all I could think of was how Raijon could make such a fine grab of a long pass with a defender on his back but not catch a simple snap only eight yards from a probable win.
The Vols need a punter like Ryan Tydlacka.
The kicking game used to be a staple of Vols football, and now it resembles a dumpster fire.
Other than their first drive of the game, the Wildcats did little with the ball, other than give it to their punter after failed drives to keep Tennessee from getting good field position. From punts, the Vols started their first-half drives from their own 17, 11, 26, and 30 yard lines. That’s because Ryan Tydlacka got punts off for 47, 45, and 49 yards in the air. He added more in the second half, including kicks for 38, 39, 44, 48, and 61 yards.
Making a team punt nine times is usually a good thing, unless their punter averages nearly 45 yards per kick and allows zero return yards.
That’s what Ryan Tydlacka did. He was Kentucky’s unsung hero on this streak-breaking Saturday in Lexington.
In the end, this was as disappointing a loss as could be imagined. It was a very bad result for a bad football team — one of the worst losses by one of the worst Tennessee football teams of the last half century on both accounts.
It was also a very bad turn of events for this coaching staff. Derek Dooley now has on his record as leading a Tennessee team to the most number of conference losses in program history, including losses by nearly-unheard-of margins of 31 (LSU and Alabama) and 42 (Arkansas). It will be painted by the unwashed masses as all his fault, regardless of circumstances and reasons for those circumstances.
The only thing that can be done about that is for fortunes of this program to be reversed, quickly, by winning — winning a whole lot of games next season. Nothing else matters to most these days. There will be more said about that in upcoming posts.
For now, it’s time to lay off the Orange Sauce for a while in order to gather some energy to be able to give the present situation some proper perspective.