An aura of relief filled Knoxville, Tennessee last weekend. The feeling stemmed from the knowledge the Volunteer football had returned to national prominence. Last year, Tennessee experienced a rare losing season with no bowl game. Now ranked in the top twenty, Vol fans colored the campus orange with the hope of finishing the season strong and improving their bowl status.
At the onset of this season, the game with Kentucky had “blowout” practically engraved onto it. Kentucky has had little to bounce off of over the past few years and most expected their coach, Rich Brooks, to be shown the exit sign by the season’s end. But, Brooks and his young team managed to assemble an effective offense that scored seven victories and bowl eligibility upon entering Neyland Stadium for the regular season finale. Although Tennessee was favored by twenty, the Wildcats would have a few surprises to share for the 104,382 that would be looking on.
The Tennessee football experience is among the most impressive nationwide. Fans start early and gather around campus for all the pregame hoopla stretching from the “Vol Walk” to “The Salute to the Hill.” Although the atmosphere was a bit sedate compared to major contests with rivals such as Florida or Alabama, any casual observer could recognize the fervor and passion that emanates from Volunteer fans. That enthusiasm needed to spill into Neyland Stadium as the Vols prepared for their neighboring state rival. Tennessee blasted out to an early lead highlighted by an impressive pass in pressure from QB Eric Ainge that landed perfectly into the arms of Robert Meachem for a fifteen yard score. However, their sudden 10-0 lead wouldn’t last. Turnovers and heroics from Kentucky star QB Andre Woodson would vault the Wildcats to a surprising 12-10 lead at the half.
Walking around the stadium at halftime, it was hard not to overhear the excitement from those wearing bright blue in the stadium. “We’re gonna get this one!” Kentucky fans certainly had optimism, and the second half would be their opportunity to prove some valiance. The two-point lead would be theirs for the entire third quarter. The impressive part of this effort revolved around the fact that Kentucky came into this game dead last in total defense on a national scale. Yet, they kept Tennessee from dominating at their own home.
The fourth quarter finally smiled on the Vols as a one-yard touchdown plunge gave them the 17-12 lead. Kentucky’s high-powered offense sputtered throughout the half until their final drive. The Wildcats marched down the field to the Tennessee six. One score and they would lead. However, the impressive show of defense today would not only come from the ‘Cats. The Volunteers held Kentucky on four straight plays and turned them away. From there, Tennessee successfully ran out the clock and filed away their twenty-second straight victory over the Wildcats.
Both teams should be proud. Tennessee and Kentucky both have bowl games to point towards this season. But, if Woodson would have connected on that fourth down pass to take the lead at intimidating Neyland Stadium, everything that makes Knoxville beautiful from the Smokey Mountains to the gameday orange would have faded a bit. Needless to say, that sense of relief carried through as Vol fans happily shuffled home.