They say at the end of a rainbow is a pot of gold. That may be true if you’re chasing a leprechaun, but on Saturday night in Lexington, what you’d find at the end of the rainbows at Kroger Field were Tennessee receivers. They were hauling in touchdown bombs as high and arching as anything you’d see in the sky after a summer rainstorm.
And there didn’t seem to be a defender in sight.
But despite what seemed like the Volunteers’ ability to go deep whenever their Big Orange spirit moved them, the Kentucky Wildcats had them backing up in the final seconds and hoping the worst that might happen was overtime.
Instead, the comeback fell apart, the Vols escaping with a wild, 45-42 victory, adding another win to their bulging victory column made so dominating by that 26-game winning streak.
Lately, the rivalry had been much more competitive, the Cats winning two of the past four and this one appeared to be a tossup. It certainly ended up that way. How it got there is something fans of both teams will remember for a long, long time.
“What I did like about our team as compared to last week when we traded jabs or shots or whatever you want to call it,” Mark Stoops said, “when we took a punch, I loved the fact that our team responded and came right back.” It did. Just not far enough.
Tennessee took a page from the Mississippi State playbook, constantly challenging UK’s defensive backs, who struggled all night.
The Cats gave up a 75-yard TD bomb on the first play from scrimmage and on the next Vols possession, a 72-yard strike. They also gave up aerial deliveries of 41, 37 and 18 yards (for a touchdown). The UK defense also surrendered 145 net rushing yards in what turned into something of a track meet.
And while the offense failed to respond in Starkville, it did rise up against the Volunteers. Kentucky piled up an astounding 612 yards on a school-record 99 plays. Chris Rodriguez buried the memory of whatever “issue” he was dealing with last week by running 22 times for 109 yards – and not once was he tackled for a loss, endlessly pushing the pile beyond the line of scrimmage.
Wan’Dale Robinson victimized the worst passing defense in the SEC with 13 catches for 166 yards and a score, time and again hooking up with Will Levis when the Cats needed it the most.
Had the Wildcats completed their comeback, Levis would be celebrated forever in the annals of UK football history for engineering a win over a hated arch-rival. “I didn’t know how big the rivalry was until I got here,” he said. “It’s pretty epic. I’ve only been here since May, and I really don’t like them.” And indeed, he made plays heroic both with his arm and his feet, rushing for two touchdowns and throwing for three.
But it was a crucial mistake he made late in the game that made it more difficult, but not impossible, for Kentucky to come all the way back. Levis, under pressure, telegraphed a pass that cornerback Alontae Taylor turned into a pick-six, reminiscent of the two the Cats scored against the Vols in Knoxville last season.
It was horrible mistake, one that made the score 38-28 with 6:23 left in the third quarter but still, Kentucky had a chance. The Cats would answer with a leaping touchdown catch by Robinson to pull to within 38-35; UT would put up seven of its own early in the fourth.
Down 10 again, Kentucky would once more march down the field and score as Levis found Isaiah Cummings from 24 yards out. Cummings carried defenders for the last five yards into the end zone, making it 45-42 with 9:36 remaining.
Incredibly, that’s where the scoring would end. But not for lack of trying by both teams.
Tennessee would put together a 12-play drive, eating 4:54 off the clock but, wonder of wonders, missed a 35-yard field goal, swinging the door wide open for Kentucky.
The Cats rushed right through it, moving the ball to the Tennessee 48. That’s where mistakes began.
On third-and-six, Levis did the unforgivable, taking a sack for a loss of three yards and as he went down, the UT defender clearly yanked on his facemask. Levis sprang to his feet, screaming for justice from the officials and getting none.
Stoops immediately called timeout but during the stop in play he reverted to his early days on the UK sideline, giving in to his formidable temper. He stormed out to one of the referees and shared his opinions so improperly that he was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct. Now it was fourth and 24.
It looked as though that would be it, the Wildcats settling for one final fling of a Hail Mary. But Levis, incredibly, found Cummings for the first down and the Cats had life at the Tennessee 38, needing seven or eight yards to pull to within field goal range.
Sadly, on a night where yardage seemed to come so easily, Levis misfired on four straight passes. On third down, where a modest underneath route might have netted enough yards to take a try for three, Levis went deep. On fourth down, instead of throwing to the sticks for just enough for a first down, deep ball again. Game over. A third straight loss in the books.
A team that early in the season was one of the nation’s best when it came to not giving up “chunk” plays seemed to give them up on nearly every possession. When it was playing its best defense a few weeks ago, the offense struggled. Not on this night.
“As I told the team,” Stoops said, “we’ve been a part of so many games where we’ve played so good on one side of the ball, maybe defensively and just come up a little bit short on the other side.
“We’re a team. And we’ll stick together. So they’re all big boys. And we can all handle the criticism and, you know, the things that come with it. We’ve got to bring these guys along.”
Sugar Bowl representatives watched from the Kroger Field press box. The Big Blue Nation can forget about a trip to New Orleans. But there are still attractive games to shoot for in exciting, exotic locales.
To get there, all you have to do is start winning again.