The more they stay the same. Yes, I think we can all agree that this phrase is trite. However, I find it to be particularly applicable to the festivities in Lexington last Saturday. The Tennessee program has certainly gone through tremendous upheaval over the last year. We've seen the ouster of a lifelong Tennessee man, the arrival of a brash/arrogant/inexperienced coach who rattled everybody's cage, a promising opening game, a depressing stretch of 4 games, an encouraging stretch of 4 games, an unnecessary distraction, a demolition, and a pedestrian performance against an overmatched foe. That's a lot to have happened in the course of a year. At the conclusion of 60+ minutes in Commonwealth Stadium, though, I was comforted by the comfortable consistency of one fact: Kentucky remains winless against the Big Orange in my lifetime (plus an additional year just for good measure).
And yet...I never really believed we would lose the game. I was dismayed by the momentary appearance of some Incrompetence, but I actually said out loud, "It's ok, it's Kentucky...they've found so many ways to lose over the years." When we breezed down the field on the next drive, the Vols assuaged my fears and I assumed that a romp was coming. And then the Wildcat happened.
A couple of caveats ahead of my next line of observations/opinions. I have never played football. I have never analyzed game film. I have no idea what keys players are taught to look for in certain situations. That being said, it became increasingly obvious to me that Randall Cobb was not going to hand the ball to the motion man nor was he going to be a serious threat throwing the ball out of the Wildcat. He was going to run it up the middle each time. I understood that, so surely Monte and Co. did, too. It was painful to see our inability to stop it in the first half especially when it was patently clear to me what was coming. I'll cut the linebackers some slack for the inexperience and lack of depth, but at the end of the day, they have to make plays. I think the reps that some young players have gotten this year will help down the line, but it's made for some interesting times so far this year.
With the Wildcat running amok, we trailed at halftime. I started to get a bit nervous, but c'mon, it was still Kentucky! I'd spent most of a volunteer event in high school watching Casey Clausen rally us from a 21-0 deficit, so surely we could overcome a measly 7 points (Note: no pun intended with volunteer, and I hope nobody will fault me for letting my love of football overcome my desire to assist at the West Hills Fall Festival as a 15-year-old!). As we drove to the 1 yard line, I felt confident we were about to seize control...and then we didn't. To some extent, I put this one on Lane in 2 respects. First, as much as the fans like it, you should probably take the points in the middle of the 3rd quarter when you have the chance. You never know when those 3 points will keep you out of overtime. Second, if you're going to go for it, call your best play. I don't think the rollout to the short side of the field is the best play from the 1, but maybe that's just me. This year has shown a lot of growth among the players, but I think it has also been a learning experience for the head coach. I hope he's been taking notes.
Despite this disappointing turn of events, the defense increased their intensity, the offense slammed it down Kentucky's throats, and we were poised to walk away with another win over Kentucky in workmanlike fashion. With 2 minutes left, as Stocker pulled in Crompton's pass on the sideline and rumbled for the first down, I told Stocker via the TV, "Hold onto the ball!" He didn't listen to me. Crap. As Cobb gashed us again up the middle, I contemplated the significance of what was about to happen. I was about to witness a Kentucky victory for the first time in my life, a truly unprecedented event. I was stunned. Apparently, so was/were Rich Brooks and/or Joker Phillips, because they decided to stray from the one thing that had been working for them all night. I still do not know why they stopped running the Wildcat, but I appreciate the decision. One great Dennis Rogan play later, we went to overtime.
Overtime was a wonderful sequence for Tennessee's 2 best players (EB and Hardesty) and Tennessee's 2 most improved players (Crompton and Gerald Jones). As that gaping chasm opened up in the Kentucky defense, I had several thoughts in rapid succession. First, "HARDESTY!!!!!!!!!!!!!" Second, "You know, OT is a lot of fun when you win." And finally, "See, I knew we'd beat Kentucky. Some things never change."
Random thoughts that didn't fit in anywhere above:
How do you think it feels to be Lones Seiber? He has had chances to win 2 out of the last 3 games against Tennessee and hasn't been able to come through. I bet that the chat rooms and call-in shows in Lexington are ablaze with conspiracy theories about the kid from Knoxville being in cahoots with the Vols.
Along the same lines...does anyone realize that this game marked the 3rd time in 4 years that Kentucky had the ball inside the 10 at the end of the game down by less than a TD? Obviously, UT has won each of those games. This more than anything symbolizes to me the incredible luck involved in maintaining a streak like this over 25 years.
Montario Hardesty is an absolute beast. I've said it...a bunch of other people have said it...everyone could say it and would not stop being true/enjoyable. I'm really happy for #2 and hope he can teach Brown/Oku a few tricks before he leaves.
If we don't end up in a January bowl game, I will be convinced there is a conspiracy out there.
As always, I encourage thoughts, comments, etc.