KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee avenged one of the school’s worst football losses on Saturday by dumping the Kentucky Wildcats, 37-17, before an announced crowd of 81,841 – there were maybe 55,000 in Neyland Stadium – on a sunny, cold afternoon on the banks of the gently rolling Tennessee River.
The week was anything but placid for the Vols.
Junior quarterback Tyler Bray, coming off a career-low passing effort in a 41-18 loss to Vanderbilt, threw for 293 yards and four touchdowns, carrying interim coach Jim Chaney to a victory six days after Derek Dooley was fired after three consecutive losing records.
Chaney is the Vols’ first interim coach since Phillip Fulmer’s first three games in 1992.
“At the beginning of the week, it was a little rugged,” Chaney said. “No question dealing with change is difficult, but as the week progressed I thought we were close to being ready to play a football game.”
It wasn’t a flawless performance, but the Vols played well enough to beat the lowly Wildcats, who have dropped 27 of 28 games to Tennesssee in the 108-year series. The Vols’ 26-game winning streak in the series was snapped with last year’s inexplicable horrendous effort that resulted in a 10-7 Kentucky win in Lexington.
More importantly, the Vols (5-7, 1-7 Southeastern Conference) averted the team’s first winless league record in 79 years and first eight-loss season ever.
It was Tennessee’s fifth one-win mark in league play, but second under Dooley. The other three disastrous one-win campaigns came in 1954 (coach Harvey Robinson), 1964 (Doug Dickey) and 1977 (Johnny Majors).
But even the victory in their season finale couldn’t erase the disappointment of a third consecutive losing season, the first time that’s happened since coach Andrew A. Stone (twice) and Z.G. Clevenger did it from 1909-11.
“Tough, tough,” Chaney said of the 2012 season. “Right now is not a time for reflection for me. It’s been a tough one. I can say that.”
The Vols lost to all nationally ranked SEC opponents – Florida, Georgia, Mississippi State, Alabama and South Carolina – they faced and also to unranked Missouri and Vanderbilt. Their only wins came against North Carolina State, Georgia State, Akron, Troy and, of course, the Wildcats (2-10, 0-8), who fired coach Joker Phillips a week before Tennessee canned Dooley.
So, with no bowl game in Tennessee’s future, athletic director Dave Hart can go full-bore on finding a replacement for Dooley, who was 15-21 in three seasons, and returning the Vols to SEC and national relevance.
"I think we need someone in here who can get us back to playing Tennessee football -- hard physical football -- so we'll get back to dominating everybody like we used to," senior fullback Ben Bartholomew said.
Chaney, the Vols' offensive coordinator, was asked if he wanted to stay at Tennessee.
“The gentleman that they hire, that’s his job to make those decisions,” he said. “Personally, my family and I really enjoy Knoxville and we love the University of Tennessee and if that opportunity comes up, we’d love to discuss that.”
Three players – none of them among the 13 seniors who were playing their final game – had big hands in Saturday’s victory, the 14th straight against Kentucky in Knoxville.
Quarterback Tyler Bray passed for 293 yards and four touchdowns in a matter-of-fact performance against the SEC’s 10th-worst defense. He completed 20 of 34 passes and the touchdowns went to four different receivers – Zach Rogers, Justin Hunter, Mychal Rivera and Cordarrelle Patterson – and covered 21, 42, 29 and 21 yards, respectively.
Bray’s 34 touchdowns this season rank second to only to Peyton Manning’s 36 in 1997. Bray’s 3,612 passing yards are second behind Manning’s 3,819 in 1997.
“I thought we’d be going to a bowl game, but things didn’t go that way this year,” Bray said. “We got a win at the end, so that’s all that matters.”
Patterson, the dynamic 6-foot-3-inch, 205-pound bundle of versatility, had 158 all-purpose yards to give him 1,858 yards this season, breaking the school record of 1,721 set by tailback Reggie Cobb in 1987.
Receiver Justin Hunter caught three passes for 65 yards and a touchdown, finishing the season with 73 receptions, second on UT’s single-season list behind Marcus Nash’s 76 in 1997.
“We wanted to play for our seniors and we didn’t want to give up and have them leave with a loss,” Hunter said. “We played our hearts out for them.”
Patterson, Hunter and Bray are juniors, but each has an opportunity to forego their seniors years and enter the 2013 NFL draft.
Hunter said the new coach that Hart hires would have an impact on his decision.
“So, we have to wait for that before we make our decisions,” he said of his future and those for Bray and Patterson.
Tight end Rivera, one of the 13 seniors dropping the curtain on his college career, caught a pass in his 18th straight game and had five catches for 64 yards and a score. His 562 receiving yards breaks the single-season record of 493 set by Jason Witten in 2002.
“We’re guys who can roll with the punches,” Rivera said of his senior teammates. “In life, things don’t go your way and you just have to play the cards that are dealt to you and move on. I’m really proud of our senior class. My time here was a little different, finishing like we did and coach Dooley being released, but I had fun.”
Linebacker A.J. Johnson had another sterling dual-threat game, scoring the Vols’ second touchdown on a 2-yard run in the second quarter – he has run the ball 12 times and scored six touchdowns.
The hard-hitting sophomore had a game-high 14 tackles to give him an SEC-leading 138 on the season, three ahead of Kentucky’s Avery Williamson. He also had a sack, two tackles for loss and a quarterback hurry.
It was Johnson’s 10th straight game with double-digit tackles – defensive backs Jaron Toney had 11 tackles and LaDarrell McNeil
“I’m going out on every snap and trying to make plays, trying to get to the ball,” Johnson said. “That is all I pretty much do and the tackles are just adding up.”
The Wildcats have struggled mightily this season as well. They lost nine of their last 10 and wins over Kent State and Samford came nine weeks apart.
And Phillips didn’t survive.
“It’s time to go,” Phillips said. “My office is emptied out. I have keys to turn in and we’re done.”
Tennessee, which had 457 total yards of offense, built a 20-7 second-quarter lead on two Bray touchdown passes, Johnson’s short scoring run and the first of two Michael Palardy field goals.
But Jonathan George bolted 45 yards for a touchdown and Craig McIntosh’s 29-yard field goal in the third quarter sliced the Vols’ lead to 20-17.
Before the quarter ended, however, Bray connected with Rivera on a wheel route and Patterson to extend Tennessee’s lead to 34-17.
Palardy’s second field goal, this one a 33-yarder, provided the final 20-point margin of victory.
What’s next for Phillips?
“I’m going to relax and start fielding some of the calls, texts and e-mails that came in during the last few weeks,” he said. “If I get a call from a number I don’t recognize, I’ll answer it. It could be a potential employer.”
Kentucky 7 7 3 0 – 00
Tennessee 14 6 14 3 – 00
TENN – Zach Rogers 21 pass from Tyler Bray (Michael Palardy kick), 12:52
KENT – D.J Warren 1 pass from Jalen Whitlow (Craig McIntosh kick), 7:42
TENN – Johnson 2 run (Palardy kick), 6:01
TENN – Justin Hunter 42 pass from Bray (kick blocked), 12:24
KENT – Jonathan George 45 run (McIntosh kick), 10:18
KENT – FG McIntosh 29, 7:31
TENN – Mychal Rivera 29 pass from Bray (Palardy kick), 5;24
TENN – Patterson 21 pass from Bray (Palardy kick), 1:31
TENN – FG Palardy 33, 5:38
First Downs 23 23
Rushes-Yds. 37-167 32-164
Passing Yds. 245 293
Com.-Att.-Int. 30-47-0 20-34-0
Total Offense 412 457
Fumbles-Lost 0-0 1-0
Punts.-Avg. 5-48.0 5-42.6
Penalties-Yds. 3-25 7-59
RUSHING — Kentucky: Jonathan George 8-59, Raymond Sanders 16-54, Jalen Whitlow 9-31, Patrick Towles 3-16, Damarco Robinson 1-7; Tennessee: Marlin Lane 10-75, Rajion Neal 9-53, Cordarelle Patterson 2-38, Ben Bartholomew 2-10, Quenshan Watson 3-7, A.J. Johnson 1-2, Alton Howard 1-minus 1, Team 3-minus 6.
PASSING — Kentucky: Whitlow 29-45-0 225, Towles 1-1-0 20, Gene McCaskill 0-1-0 0; Tennessee: Tyler Bray 20-34-0 293.
RECEIVING — Kentucky: La’Rod King 10-78, Sanders 6-26, George 3-54, Tyler Robinson 3-46, McCaskill 3-22, A.J. Legree 3-14, D.Robinson 1-4, D.J. Warren 1-1; Tennessee: Justin Hunter 3-65, Patterson 4-88, Mychal Rivera 5-64, Zach Rogers 2-28, Jacob Carter 2-23, Vincent Dallas 1-18, Bartholomew 1-13, Howard 1-minus 2, Lane 1-minus 4.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)