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With so much on the line, this loss might have been the toughest

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Across campus - stamped on bumpers, plastered on a sign outside of Commonwealth Stadium and scripted on T-shirts - two simple words pleaded for Kentucky to end 24 years of agony.

"Beat Tennessee," the slogan read.

It seemed so simple. It finally appeared inevitable. But the only simple thing and only foregone conclusion in this series has been "Beat Kentucky."

It happened yet again. The Volunteers - in devastating fashion as usual - defeated the Cats 30-24 Saturday night at Commonwealth Stadium. The streak marches on, now a quarter of a century old.

Twenty-five years straight. It seems like 100.

"It eats you," Joker Phillips said. "I'm sick and tired of watching the film (of them winning)."

In a long and ever-growing document of devastating losses, it's tough to call this the toughest one to swallow. UK has been as close as it was Saturday night. It's had the game won. And it's slipped away every time like water through a crack.

Gauging from the emotions of the players after the game, it's hard to tell if they were more shocked or more in denial. Some of them stared straight ahead answering questions as if it was just another loss. Who knows, maybe they're getting used to it.

Others, like linebacker Sam Maxwell, could hardly raise their heads, calling it the toughest loss of the careers.

But with all the possibilities, goals and dreams on the line, the players didn't need to spell it out. This was the toughest loss of them all. With all a golden opportunity to take the next step, finish second in the Southeastern Conference East Division and go to a New Year's Day bowl, UK suffered its most heartbreaking loss in the ongoing streak.

"We had a chance to do something that hasn't been done around here and finish second in the SEC East," head coach Rich Brooks said. "We failed."

And failing has never hurt so badly.

"It hurts so much," senior defensive tackle Corey Peters said. "You're looking at a situation, which is rare, from going second in the SEC to I think fifth. It hurts, not just because it's Tennessee, but because of all the possibilities that could have been."

Many of those possibilities are as good as gone. Any chance of going to the Outback Bowl has disappeared, and the Chick-fil-A Bowl remains very much up in the air. With the loss, the Cats join a logjam of seven-win teams in the SEC lobbying for the bowl in Atlanta.

We won't know who gets it for at least another week, but there's a chance UK could slide back to the Music City Bowl, the Liberty Bowl or even the Independence Bowl.

It's a devastating scenario to think of, but it's the one the Cats face after all the close calls, would haves, could haves and should haves against South Carolina, Mississippi State and now Tennessee.

"This could have been better, but it also could have been worse," Brooks said. "We had some people step up. It's not the season that I wanted or expected. I expected more and I think our players expected more."

They almost had it. They should have had it.

With a key Tennessee fumble late in the game, the tide appeared to have finally turned. UK safety Ashton Cobb popped Luke Stocker near the Kentucky sideline and Taylor "big play" Wyndham recovered it for what seemed like was going to be the biggest play in recent UK history.

The Cats took over from the UT 37-yard line down 24-21 with 2:21 to go and destiny at their doorstep. The stadium rocked, the press box swayed and momentum carried with it.

Twenty-four years of agony appeared to finally be dashed. Yet 20 minutes later in overtime, Montario Hardesty was doing the dashing, racing 20 yards up the gut of the UK defense to, defeat the Cats with a game-winning touchdown run.

"It's really disappointing," Maxwell said. "You prepare all week. I practiced as hard as I could. I really gave it my all, and then to get out here ... to lose that game, it's unexplainable."

In some ways it is. In some ways it's not.

How you lose 25 times to the same opponent with so many chances year after year remains an unsolved mystery. But how the Cats did it this year doesn't need much explaining at all.

After dictating much of the first half, UK got pushed around in the second half. After amassing 187 yards in before halftime, UK mustered just 74 yards the rest of the way. Tennessee, meanwhile, racked up the yards by the dozen, finishing with 446 total yards. Hardesty ran wild to a tune 179 yards and three scores.

"They came out in the second half and dominated both sides of the line of scrimmage," Brooks said. "They took the fight to us and we didn't respond very well."

And when UK had a chance to make its most resounding statement of the past decade with the program's next step and the streak on the line, it failed to punch it in.

Once the Cats reached the UT 13-yard line with mere minutes to go, the offense stalled for good. With a near non-existent passing game in the second half, Phillips tried to pound the ball. The Cats got it to third-and-5 on the UT 8-yard line, but a designed Morgan Newton run to the right side was stuffed for just a 2-yard gain.

"I thought it was a walk-in the way they lined up," Phillips. "We just didn't execute on the perimeter."

It wasn't the call, the series or one particular play that kept the streak going. It was little plays here and there that the Cats failed to take advantage of. It was costly penalties, bad turnovers and missed chances that ultimately cost UK its ultimate breakthrough win.

With a chance to make even more history, we were all reminded that the step from the bottom to the top takes a long time. It means bumps and bruises, valley and hills.

Unfortunately for UK, one huge hill -- Rocky Top -- remains in the way. Tennessee's streak stands strong.

The Cats will have another opportunity next year to end it and finally move on. But until they do and until they take down their final demon, they haven't fully made that next step. Not yet.

"It's still not where we want to be," Brooks said. "It's still not good enough." 

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4 Comments

ITS LIFE KENTUCKY WILL PROBABLY NEVER BEAT UT, BECAUSE THEY ARE A SUB PAR FOOTBALL TEAM IN A CONFENRENCE THAT IS TOP NOTCH, AND LIKE I SAID BEFORE UK SHOULD BE IN CONF. USA NOT THE SEC. "GO VOLS"

It happened yet again. The Volunteers - in devastating fashion as usual - defeated the Cats 30-24 Saturday night at Commonwealth Stadium. The streak marches on, now a quarter of a decade old.

Sorry to be that guy... but it's more like.. a quarter of a CENTURY... two and a half decades if using that measurement.

There is no excuse for this loss to UT. Game on the line, inside the UT 10 yard line and Cobb is nowhere to be found near the ball. That's pathetic. It's almost like the staff doesn't really want the UT streak to end. Cobb gets you 27 yards out of the final 37 and then disappears? How about a Wildcat formation w/ a "give" to Locke (Cobb faking of course)?..

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  • Anonymous: There is no excuse for this loss to UT. Game on the line, inside the UT 10 yard line and read more
  • Eric Lindsey: Ahhh, good call, Jon. Just a brain fart on my part that nobody caught. Thanks for pointing it out. It's read more
  • jon: It happened yet again. The Volunteers - in devastating fashion as usual - defeated the Cats 30-24 Saturday night at read more
  • steve: ITS LIFE KENTUCKY WILL PROBABLY NEVER BEAT UT, BECAUSE THEY ARE A SUB PAR FOOTBALL TEAM IN A CONFENRENCE THAT read more