LEXINGTON — The best Hollywood writer could not have written this script.
Kentucky turned to a senior wide receiver who dropped key passes early in the season to play quarterback against Tennessee, a team the Wildcats had not beaten since 1984, because its two top quarterbacks were injured, and yet somehow managed to win 10-7 despite having only 217 total yards.
No one could have made that up, but there was Matt Roark playing like he was back in high school when he was a quarterback and Kentucky’s defense playing like it belonged among the elite in the Southeastern Conference.
To add to the plot, about an hour before kickoff UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart confirmed on a pregame radio show that Phillips, who had been under fire from many in the UK¿fan base, would definitely be back next year.
No wonder jubilant UK fans stormed the field after the win and were met with open arms by players, coaches and cheerleaders. This was as close to Big Blue heaven as most die-hard UK¿fans have been and they wanted to savor the win on the Commonwealth Stadium turf.
There was former UK¿receiver Tommy Cook, now a graduate assistant coach, crying as he surveyed the scene. There was Phillips drenched with water poured on him by assistant coach Tee Martin — who played for Tennessee — and players smiling at midfield. There was running back CoShik Williams posing for pictures with anyone who came by. There was linebacker Winston Guy hugging family and friends.
Fans were taking pictures and recording videos to make sure that joyous moment could be remembered just in case it takes another 26 years for Kentucky to win again.
“After 26 years, it’s about time,” said sophomore linebacker Avery Williamson, a Tennessee native. “It has been too long. Now I can go home and not be embarrassed over this streak. There’s a sense of pride about doing this.”
Sense of pride? Sense of relief? Sense of satisfaction?
Take your pick. They all fit.
But who could have ever thought that Roark could do what former UK¿quarterbacks like Tim Couch, Jared Lorenzen, Dusty Bonner, Andre Woodson and Mike Hartline couldn’t do and beat Tennessee? Who could have ever thought that a UK¿team with a losing record could do what bowl teams and teams with more overall talent hadn’t been able to do since 1984?
How did it happen for this team and not other UK teams that also desperately wanted this streak to go away?
“I don't know. We took care of the football. In the past we have turned the football over,” Phillips said. “We've made some bone¿head plays, and we made some bone¿head plays today but we were able to turn it, and I don't know why. I think this group is close-knit and every guy that stood up (in the pregame meeting) said, ‘You are my brothers,’ and I think that's part of it.”
Or maybe it was just destiny. Tennessee lost a fumble and had two interceptions; UK¿had no turnovers.
The Cats even might have gotten a rare break on what could have been a Roark fumble when the replay failed to overturn the call that let the Cats keep the ball and score two plays later. Any long-time UK football fan knows that just doesn’t happen for Kentucky, especially in SEC play.
Even better for Kentucky was the way its seniors made so many big plays at key times to go out being remembered as the team that beat Tennessee rather than the team that ended the bowl streak. Just consider:
- Safety Taiedo Smith, out most of the season with an injury, got the interception to seal the win.
- Linebackers Winston Guy (14 tackles, two tackles for loss) and Danny Trevathan (eight tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, two pass break-ups), UK’s two warriors all season, had gargantuan games again.
- UK’s offensive line, the expected strength of the offense going into the season, went out playing like an experienced, physical offensive line behind seniors Stuart Hines, Billy Joe Murphy and Chandler Burden.
- Roark rushed for 124 yards on 24 carries and took hit after hit with no glaring mistakes.
- Punter Ryan Tydlacka averaged 43.6 yards on nine kicks to keep UK¿in terrific field position as he has done all season.
And don’t forget those die-hard fans. Probably not many of the 59,885 fans announced as being at the game came expecting UK¿to win, even though the Vols just finished their second straight losing season.
But those who came started believing and at one time and the press box shaking in the second half.
“It's special — these are the Wildcat faithful, the wildest. It was one of the loudest I've ever seen it, even though we weren't at capacity. Those guys (fans) did a good job, had a lot to do with us winning today, with how loud and crazy you guys were,” Phillips said. “It was exciting to send the seniors out (the right way), but it was exciting to see the Wildcat faithful here and I appreciate them.”
On this day, everyone wearing blue loved everyone. That’s what happens when you are part of history.
“I just want to say that this is a blessing. I love this team. I feel like we took care of business today. It’s been 26 years. That’s too long for anything,” said Trevathan, who had over 20 family members at the game. “I think we played our hearts out today. I feel like we played one of our best games.”
They did and for a season that was too often full of disappointment, it ended the best possible way thanks to an unlikely hero named Roark and a bunch of others who just refused to let this win get away.