KNOXVILLE – The Wildcats were thinking Fiesta. Instead, they took a siesta. And it cost them.
Perhaps they were feeling the emotional hangover of the disappointing loss to Georgia. Or maybe they were letting their collective mind drift to a potential date in a New Year’s Day bowl game in Arizona.
Whatever the reason, Kentucky suffered the costliest loss in recent memory to the Tennessee Volunteers, 24-7 at Neyland Stadium Saturday afternoon. The script was supposed to be flipped this season but it was evident in the early moments that everything new was old again.
For decades now – literally, decades – the Wildcats have visited Rocky Top as the underdog, a team that had to play almost perfect football and hope the guys in orange would beat themselves.
This was the odd season. It’s not unusual of late to see Tennessee struggling; the Volunteers have been doing that, it seems, ever since they prematurely jettisoned Phil Fulmer as their head coach.
But here came the Wildcats, ranked 12th nationally and as recently as last week in the college football playoff Top 10. A trip to the SEC championship game was in their collective grasp.
But they fell to Georgia, ruining one dream. Still, others lay ahead: Win in Knoxville for the first time since 1984; post a second straight victory over UT for the first time since 1976-77; put yourself in a position to sweep Florida, Tennessee and Louisville for the first time in modern college football history.
Their roles were reversed but the Volunteers didn’t play that way. Unfortunately, neither did Kentucky. It was the same old same old, UT dominating UK.
Tennessee gashed the Wildcats time and again on first down for big plays, via both the run and the pass. The Vols became the second consecutive UK opponent to put up more than 20 points after Kentucky had made a national name for itself by making that its defensive cutoff point all season long.
To the surprise of few, the UK offense sputtered again, despite attempts to use Benny Snell as the occasional receiver instead of simply as a battering ram. And after the game, Snell blurted out his frustration with the situation of late, and some unnamed teammates.
“I don’t want to say it’s not serious,” he told reporters, “but I feel like just on the team there’s not guys that have that dog mentality, that want it, that are hungry, that are hungry for it and want it.
“It was obvious Tennessee wanted it more than Kentucky, so that’s why the outcome was what it was. We’ve got to eliminate those guys that don’t have that hunger.
“Don’t have anymore, we don’t need you.”
The Wildcats seemed interested early, taking the opening kickoff and picking up a first down before stalling. And despite a 25-yard Tennessee completion on its first play from scrimmage, the defense forced the Vols to punt.
But once again, Kentucky’s offensive attack seemed mired in a sea of goo. In the second quarter, the Wildcats had 15 plays and gained a net total of one yard. That’s why UK had just 68 total yards in the first half, 262 for the game – on 73 plays.
Social media is howling about the offensive coordinator. “I’ve got to get it fixed,” Eddie Gran said. “And I will get it fixed.”
Head coach Mark Stoops insisted the blame was all his. “It starts with me and really ends with me,” he said.
Completely accurate. And now Stoops has to, once again, stop a slide that threatens a season that still could be special, that will end in a bowl game and might culminate in double-digit wins, counting the post-season. But there’s much work to do.
Stoops, Gran and quarterbacks coach Darrin Hinshaw have to somehow harness the late-game energy and execution of Terry Wilson, who seems to play his best when it’s late and the game is on the line.
They also must isolate whichever Wildcats Snell was talking about, the Cats who are lacking the “dog” mentality, and banish them to the bench. For if they don’t, a special season could end in ruins.
The way their afternoon did this day on Rocky Top.