For all of the things Butch Jones hadn’t done in his five seasons as Tennessee’s head coach, there was at least this: he hadn’t lost to Kentucky. At least not yet.
That changed Saturday night, as the Volunteers fell 29-26 to the Wildcats in Lexington, clinching a bowl game for Kentucky and, in what is all but a formality at this point, the end of the Jones era in Knoxville.
Kentucky accepted the ball to open the game and promptly fumbled, leading to a 30-yard Brent Cimaglia to put Tennessee on the board first. Wildcats running back Benny Snell, Jr., made up for his mistake by carrying the load on Kentucky’s next possession, including a 6-yarder across the goal line.
Tennessee responded with a nice 69-yard possession of its own, but the drive stalled at the Kentucky 6-yard line, forcing a 24-yard boot by Cimaglia, pulling the Vols within 7-6 late in the first quarter.
Kentucky fumbled again on its next touch, but Tennessee failed to capitalize when Cimaglia missed a 44-yarder.
Snell punched in a 2-yard score to open the second quarter, giving Kentucky a 14-6 lead, but Tennessee pulled within one with a 7-play, 75-yard drive. Ty Chandler‘s 1-yard rush gave the Volunteers their first offensive touchdown in almost four full games.
However, Kentucky answered with an identical drive: seven plays, 75 yards, punctuated by a 1-yard rush, Snell’s third of the half.
Now apparently unstoppable, an unleashed Tennessee offense responded with a 10-play, 71-yard drive that again concluded on a 1-yard Chandler (22 carries for 120 yards) rush with 1:25 to play before the break.
Tennessee returned to its regular, non-touchdown-scoring ways in the second half, though. The Vols registered a first-and-goal at the Kentucky 9 and then went backward, forcing a 30-yard Cimaglia field goal. The Vols’ defense forced another Kentucky fumble on the next possession, handing the offense the ball inside the UK red zone. But the Vols went backward from there, and a 45-yard Cimaglia connection gave Tennessee a 26-21 lead with 13:24 left in the game.
The Volunteers forced a three-and-out on Kentucky’s next touch and could have put the game away with a touchdown, but again the drive stalled and again Cimaglia trotted out for another field goal — which he missed from 43 yards out.
Those missing three points would prove crucial when Kentucky took over at its own 11 with 4:43 remaining. The Wildcats methodically moved down the field, leaning largely on Snell’s legs. Stephen Johnson leaped in for an 11-yard go-ahead touchdown with 33 ticks remaining, then found Snell for a 2-point conversion to put the Wildcats up three.
Tennessee moved to its own 49 with two seconds remaining, allowing Jarrett Guaranto to load up for another Hail Mary, which he completed to Jeff George — for 48 yards, leaving the Vols two yards short of a game-winning touchdown.
Snell finished the night rushing 27 times for a game-high 180 yards and three touchdowns. Kentucky sacked Guarantano seven times and surrendered none, helping the ‘Cats out-rush Tennessee, 289-203.
The loss snapped a 5-game winning streak over Kentucky and handed Tennessee (3-5, 0-5 SEC) just its second loss to its neighbors from the north since 1985.
The win lifted Kentucky to 6-2, making the Wildcats bowl eligible in October for the first time since 2007 and keeping them alive in the SEC East race behind Georgia.