Stories of the Decade: All We Have to Do Is Beat Kentucky

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If 2014 South Carolina is the decade’s most rewatchable game, 2011 Cincinnati remains one of its most rewatchable offensive performances. Tyler Bray went for 400+ yards, Da’Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter each had 10 catches for 100+ yards, and all three were playing just the second game of their sophomore seasons. It’s worth repeating: other than everything from the first half of 2016, no performance of the 2010’s made you feel like we were closer to being back than walking out of that Cincinnati game.

It made Justin Hunter’s ACL tear on the opening drive at Florida that much harder. Then Bray broke his thumb at the end of an eight-point loss to Georgia. Then the Vols faced #1 LSU, #2 Alabama, #9 South Carolina, and #8 Arkansas four of the next five weeks.

That part went about how you’d think; in hindsight it’s interesting to note the difference between Derek Dooley’s injury-plagued second team getting blown out by Top 10 teams and Butch’s last/Pruitt’s first teams getting blown out by Missouri and Vanderbilt. But in the moment in 2011, it felt like rock bottom from a competitiveness standpoint.

The building frustration led to Thumbwatch 2011; there was a great clip I can’t find anymore where Dooley, clearly tired of being asked about Bray’s health multiple times a week, just exclaimed, “He’s got a broken thumb!” When I get asked the same question too many times, that quote still plays in my head.

But Bray got the green light to return against Vanderbilt. This was James Franklin’s first season in Nashville, and after getting blown out by #12 South Carolina and #2 Alabama, Vandy only lost to Georgia by five, Arkansas by three, and Florida by five. Bowl eligibility was on the table for both teams.

2011 Vanderbilt is one of those games that wouldn’t matter much if Tennessee was “back”, but was really good in its moment, then lost so much of its meaning because of what we’re actually here to talk about today. The Vols went up 7-0 early, Vandy missed a field goal, then Bray threw an interception on the very next play. But he connected with Rogers on a beautiful third down touchdown pass to put Tennessee back in front 14-7.

We’re going along nicely from there, still up 14-7 with 3rd-and-goal with five minutes left in the third quarter. But Bray was pick-sixed, changing the complexion of the entire game. Vanderbilt took the lead three minutes into the fourth quarter. Tennessee made an epic 13-play drive to tie it again, capped by a fourth-and-goal touchdown from Bray to Rogers on a one-handed grab. And Prentiss Wagner ended Vanderbilt’s threat in regulation with an interception at the 35 yard line.

Well-acquainted with post-whistle shenanigans working against us the year before, this time the Vols caught the right break in overtime:

So now, the Vols are 5-6. More importantly, you can still believe the things you wanted to believe after the Cincinnati game: with a healthy Bray and Justin Hunter set to return next fall, this team could be all the things you wanted them to be. Maybe we’d even get a shot at redemption in the Music City Bowl as a nice consolation prize. Things were looking up: injuries took it from us in 2011, but we could really be back in 2012.

#6: All we have to do is beat Kentucky

Tennessee had beaten Kentucky 26 years in a row, at the time the longest-active streak in the nation among annual rivals, and the longest in the history of the SEC (since broken by Florida vs Kentucky at 31 years until 2018). Unlike Vanderbilt, which played in zero bowl games during Tennessee’s 22-year win streak from 1983-2004, Kentucky made the postseason eight times during those 26 years of losing to Tennessee, including the last five seasons in a row.

But they would not be going bowling in 2011. A 2-0 start and a close loss to Louisville were followed by blowouts. Florida won by 38, LSU by 28, South Carolina by 51. In November they did beat Houston Nutt’s final Ole Miss squad, then lost to Vanderbilt by 30. The week before playing the Vols they were feisty in Athens, losing to Georgia 19-10.

That loss knocked them to 4-7 and broke the bowl streak. Rich Brooks revitalized the Cats, who hadn’t made a bowl game since a two-year run with Tim Couch in 1998 and 1999. But Brooks led them to four straight seven-or-eight win seasons from 2006-09, including the memorable 2007 group who beat #9 Louisville and #1 LSU before falling to the Vols in four overtimes.

The rise under Brooks (and subsequent 6-6 campaign in Joker Phillips’ first year) made the Tennessee series closer, but didn’t change the outcomes. In those 26 years, only eight Tennessee-Kentucky games were decided by a single possession, and three of those came in 2006, 2007, and 2009. The Vols made memorable comebacks against Kentucky in 1995 and 2001. In between, including all the games against Tim Couch, the Vols won 56-10, 59-31, 59-21, 56-21, and 59-20. It’s like we were trying to make them so similar.

Sometimes I find that we talk about the current state of the Florida series the way Kentucky talks about us: either “surprise” blowouts, or an unbelievable sequence of events we can sum up in just a few words. Alex Brown. Gaffney. Clausen in the rain. 4th-and-14. The hail mary.

For us, they are particularly cruel and unusual mistakes. For Florida, it’s simply “finding a way to win.” For Kentucky against the Vols in the 2010’s, there’s a 21-0 lead with Jared Lorenzen, still tied for the third-biggest comeback in Tennessee history. A nine-point lead in Knoxville with 12 minutes to play in 2004, swiftly undone by (checks notes) Rick Clausen. There are any number of moments in the 2007 game, from the one yard line on the last play of regulation to just making a 34-yard field goal in double overtime. No Tennessee win has been of greater consequence in the last 13 years.

Even after the events of 2011 and 2017, when the Vols were somehow +4 in turnovers and completed a hail mary on the last play of the game but still lost, I’d imagine this mindset still creeps in for Kentucky fans. The 2017 game was almost a relief for us, the final nail for Butch Jones. But the last two years haven’t produced the results Kentucky fans had in mind against Jeremy Pruitt: blown out in 2018 with their best team since the 1970’s, turned away at the goal line in Lexington last fall. Kentucky still hasn’t won in Knoxville since 1984.

All that to say this: in 2011, you fully expected to beat Kentucky. But you especially expected to beat Kentucky on the heels of that win over Vanderbilt, when Kentucky is playing a wide receiver at quarterback.

Stats of interest from the box score:

  • Matt Roark: 4-of-6, 15 yards
  • Total Yards: Tennessee 276, Kentucky 215
  • Penalties: Tennessee 5-for-32, Kentucky 11-for-85

And yet.

Kentucky “drove” 62 yards in 15 plays to kick a field goal on their opening drive. Early in the second quarter, they blocked a field goal. On Tennessee’s next drive, the Vols had 4th-and-4 at the UK 31, went for it, and failed to convert. So the Cats led 3-0 at the break, but after that first drive had four punts on three three-and-outs. They opened the second half with another one, Bray was intercepted at his own 34-yard line, then Kentucky went four-and-out. The Vols punted. Three-and-out again.

When we say the Vols got beat by a wide receiver playing quarterback, it’s really the insult after the injury. Roark did his job in not turning the ball over. He did almost nothing else. But on 2nd-and-goal with six minutes left in the third quarter, and the Vols finally ready to quit screwing around…they fumbled. And Kentucky made one drive, including a 26-yard Roark scramble on 3rd-and-12, that found the end zone. The Cats led 10-0 with 14 minutes to play.

I still wasn’t worried. It’s Kentucky. And three plays later, Bray and Rajion Neal connected for a 53-yard touchdown pass. Word. Everything is back on.

Kentucky, as you’d expect, went three-and-out. But Bray was sacked on first down, and the Vols punted back. Kentucky got one first down and punted again. This time the Vols failed to convert a 3rd-and-4, punting it back from their own 26 yard line with 4:34 to go. And one more time, Tennessee’s defense produced a three-and-out. That’s eight for the game.

Needing a field goal to tie, Tennessee got the ball at their own 28 with 2:35 to go. Bray and Rajion Neal connected again, this time on 3rd-and-10, to move the ball to the Vol 41.

But two plays later Bray was sacked again. And then on 4th-and-17, he threw an interception.

It still feels surreal.

Joe Rexrode had a really good story on Derek Dooley and Daniel Hood in The Athletic this week. With almost a decade of hindsight, I’m not sure Dooley did any better or worse than a reasonable expectation of the guy who went 17-20 at Louisiana Tech and took over in mid-January. The biggest what-ifs with him are after this game, many of them named Sal Sunseri. But this is the game that made all those what-ifs carry so much extra weight. Losing to Kentucky – to this Kentucky team – cashed in any reserve goodwill he had. Tennessee fans really wanted him to work for a long time because he wasn’t Lane Kiffin. And the 2011 season in particular was full of so many legitimate reasons for the benefit of the doubt between the schedule and the injuries.

But none of that matters when you lose to Kentucky in the last game of the year, a bitter aftertaste that removed any benefit of all the doubt to come. A fun night against NC State led to a flickering moment of real hope against the Gators two weeks later, the Vols back in the Top 25 and ahead of Florida midway through the third quarter. But that lead vanished in quick and brutal fashion. The Vols were close a number of times against the rest of the 2012 schedule. But close wasn’t nearly enough, most especially because of what happened in this game the year before. The weight of the Kentucky loss carried over everything else to come for Derek Dooley, ultimately ushering in a new regime.

This loss meant a lot for Dooley’s career, but hasn’t changed much in the series overall, or Tennessee’s fortune as a program. The Cats are still trying to beat Tennessee. And the Vols are still trying to get back.

More in this series:

#10: Are you sure the referees have left the field?

#9: A Smokey Gray Almost

#8: How will we remember Georgia State?

#7: Josh Dobbs Ignites

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Isaac Bishop
Isaac Bishop
9 months ago

The only thing I remember of that game was the disbelief I had at the time. Being a teenager I probably overblown how awful it was. However, it was just a drop in the bucket for the series. Even the 2017 game was a 3 point win over an interim coach and a broken team. This does make me wonder why UK fans are so confident this year? Yeah I know Terry is back, but they still lost their greatest play maker. Also it’s at Knoxville and I guess they forgot what happened last time with the best team they… Read more »

9 months ago

My whole family took a Thanksgiving trip to the Caribbean that year and our return flights were on that Saturday. I wore a UT polo for the flights, as I often do, and when we landed in Charlotte for our connection back to Knoxville I turned on my phone and checked the final score. Strangers literally pointed and laughed at my shirt as I walked through the Charlotte airport afterward. Not my finest moment as a Vol fan. I wanted to go into hiding after that. Dooley actually did go into hiding after that.

9 months ago
Reply to  Will Shelton

Yes, there was a report circulating that he had offered to resign in the offseason but I don’t remember hearing about it until things fell apart during the 2012 season (Dooley was even asked about it at a press conference in October:–ncaaf.html ).

But in that offseason he just disappeared.

9 months ago

Also, I missed the original discussion of the 2011 Cinci game last month and comments are now closed, so I will put it here: that game should have served as all the warning we would need for what the Butch Jones era at Tennessee would be like, at least regarding in-game stuff. Whenever my Facebook “On This Day” comes up from that game I have to laugh: From September 10, 2011: “We have benefited from some pretty bad coaching on Cincinnati’s part. Both 4th down playcalls and then that ridiculous clock snafu at the end of the half.” And then… Read more »