On a day when the Vols' SEC East title hopes were officially dashed, we got a brief glimpse of the frustration which had become the dominant emotion of this season. And then we were treated to the most sustained greatness we've seen from this team all year.
The Vols gave up their second 75+ yard fumble return for a touchdown in eight games, which Josh Dobbs atoned for with a spectacular 28 yard touchdown run to tie the score. Leading 10-7 in the second quarter Tennessee allowed Kentucky to go on a 14 play, 75 yard touchdown drive to put the Wildcats in front 14-10 with 5:39 to go before halftime.
And before we had time to contemplate the situation, a Tennessee team which had struggled all year to create explosive plays...well, exploded.
Josh Dobbs hit Josh Malone on the first play of the drive for a 75 yard touchdown, the longest pass at UT in four years. The defense held Kentucky to a single first down, giving Tennessee the ball back with 2:24 to go. And then Alvin Kamara exploded through a hole for a 63 yard run to the one yard line, with Dobbs cashing in two plays later to give Tennessee a 24-14 halftime advantage.
And if there was any doubt remaining, Tennessee erased it on the opening drive of the third quarter: nine plays, 75 yards, including back-to-back third down conversions to end it with Dobbs creating eight yards for one first down, then Dobbs and Jalen Hurd on a beautifully-designed screen play for a 37 yard dagger and a 31-14 lead.
We felt safe at this point. But the Vols hadn't had an opportunity to stretch their legs all season against an FBS foe, chased to the end by Bowling Green and playing everything else on either side of thrill or agony. And in a matter of minutes, this game went from safe to celebratory.
Darrin Kirkland intercepted a Patrick Towles screen pass, setting up Tennessee's second one play scoring drive for a 38-14 lead. Perhaps the defense let their foot off the gas for a second, allowing Kentucky to go 75 yards in four plays. But this too we had no time to contemplate: Evan Berry took the ensuing kickoff five yards deep in the end zone and raced back for his third kickoff return touchdown of the season. Berry was already the NCAA leader in kick return average coming into this game; even if the return is scored at an even 100 yards, Berry's average will blossom to an insane 42.6 yards per kick. He's so good kicking it out of bounds is statistically the safer choice. After Cordarrelle Patterson I thought we'd have to wait a long time to see another kick returner as must-see. Now Berry is one return away from the single-season school record and could be the school's first All-American since his brother.
Not to be outdone, Cameron Sutton added an 84 yard punt return of his own for the game's final score. Tennessee had 482 yards on 69 plays, a 6.98 yards per play mark which is the best number since the Vols beat Troy in 2012 and the best against an SEC foe since Ole Miss in 2010. The Vols were balanced (233 pass/249 rush) and were excellent on third down early and late, 8 of 15 while Kentucky was held to 2 of 13.
Tennessee goes to 4-4 with South Carolina coming to town. But more than that, the Vols looked every bit like the team we hoped was hiding behind so many close losses against better competition, with an explosive flair we'd been missing. The opportunity for great wins may be gone til the bowl game, but this team continues to get better, and has never looked as good for as long as they did tonight.