On a night when Kentucky was outgained by 74 yards, lost four fumbles, and watched Tennessee move the ball 87 yards in the final three plays of the game, the Wildcats defeated the Volunteers 29-26 to move to 6-2 on the season, clinch bowl eligibility, and likely hammer the final long nail into the coffin of Vol head coach Butch Jones. True to Kentucky’s script this year, most fans would term it an “ugly” win. To which I can only say, it was a Van Gogh to my eyes.
My first Wildcat road game was in UT’s Neyland Stadium in 1994. Tennessee crushed Kentucky so completely that the Wildcat band played the first song after a first down. So yes, there have been times in this series when even gaining 10 yards constituted an occasion for celebration. UT 52, UK 0.
On the same day in 2001 that I proposed to my wife (NOT at the game, incidentally), Kentucky jumped to a 21-0 lead over Tennessee at Commonwealth Stadium. With hefty lefty Jared Lorenzen slinging passes all over the field, UK’s then not quite two decade losing streak to the Vols looked destined to end. It wasn’t. Kentucky passed all over the Vols, piled up statistics, but came up short when Chase Harp fumbled away a Lorenzen pass late in the fourth quarter. UT 38, UK 35.
On a November day in 2007, I came back to Commonwealth Stadium, watching a UK team that was a slight favorite, that was the best UK team in my memory, find a way to stumble into a four-overtime loss. UT 52, UK 50.
The next year, I went to back to Knoxville. Phil Fulmer had been fired, the weather was awful, the stadium was half empty. UK half didn’t show up. UT 28, UK 10.
The point is that sometimes UK has played well in this series, sometimes they’ve played terribly. But save for a bizarre 2011 game when wide receiver Matt Roark played quarterback and UK took their offense back to the ‘90s—I mean the 1890s—it’s been all Tennessee. So Saturday night, when Jared Guarantano’s Hail Mary ended three yards short of a UT victory, it was a game to remember.
In life, as in football, things rarely work out as planned. Your quarterback has trouble completing a pass, crushes his shoulder and leaves the game, but then comes back for one last fourth quarter comeback attempt. When the results are positive, who cares about the process? For those who have been through Tennessee butt-kicking after butt-kicking, the fixation won’t be on untimely fumbles or poor pass coverage, or the struggles of the UK offense to sustain drives.
It'll be on victory, on a night when the breaks seemed to all go against Kentucky, but the outcome went for the Wildcats.
The chat room critics and the talk show hosts will find fault in the game. Kentucky can’t keep playing this way, they’ll insist. They’re missing the fact that subjective labels like “ugly” aside, since Stephen Johnson took over as UK’s quarterback, the Wildcats are 13-6 and have gone 7-5 in the SEC. They’re missing a team that, years after C.M. Newton hired Hal Mumme to play “basketball on grass,” has adopted an NCAA Tournament mindset. These Wildcats survive and advance. And if you remember years when they didn’t survive or advance, then you’ll leave “ugly” to the Sunday morning sofa quarterbacks. This 2017 Kentucky team probably has another couple of games left to win. Maybe more. It might be “ugly” to some. It’s beautiful to those who have waited for these results.
Joe Cox is contributing editor for KySportsStyle.com Magazine. He grew up in Letcher County and Bell County, and has written five books. His most recent, Almost Perfect (a study of baseball pitchers’ near-miss attempts at perfect games) is available on Amazon or at many local bookstores. Joe is an attorney and lives in Logan County with his wife and children. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.