The 21-member senior class Kentucky will honor before its regular season finale on Saturday in Commonwealth Stadium has been among the most successful in school history.
|Kentucky vs. Tennessee
Sat., Nov. 26 - 12:21 p.m. ET
Game Notes: UK | UT
| TV: SEC Network
Radio: UK IMG
Live Video via ESPN3
|UK||2011 Team Stats||UT|
|20.3||Kickoff returns (avg)||22.9|
|2.0||Punt returns (avg)||8.1|
|39.4||Net punting (avg)||33.9|
|27:58||Time of possession/game||31:21|
|29.4||Third down conversion||42.3|
|40.9||Fourth down conversion||46.2|
|386.2||Total yards allowed/game||351.7|
|194.3||Rush yards allowed/game||159.1|
|191.9||Pass yards allowed/game||192.6|
The seniors have accomplished things few Wildcats have. They've won bowl games, they've won games against top-10 opponents and they've prevailed on some of the Southeastern Conference's toughest environments. Individually, they've had the SEC's leader in tackles, they've earned All-America honors and have been named to All-SEC teams.
However, like so many senior classes that preceded them, the 21 players who will hear their names called on Senior Day have had one thing elude them. Fortunately, they have one more chance to get it done.
"Tennessee is always a bitter rival of ours and winning that game would be a great finish to the season," cornerback Anthony Mosley said. "Unfortunately we don't have the opportunity to go to a bowl game this year but we have a big opportunity to beat Tennessee."
At just 4-7 for 2011, the season has not gone as planned for the seniors, their teammates or their coaches. UK's remarkable streak of reaching five consecutive bowl games has come to an end, but ending their careers with one final win and ending the Wildcats' 26-game losing streak at the hands of the Tennessee Volunteers (5-6, 1-6 SEC) would top all those past accomplishments as the most memorable moment of the seniors' time at UK.
"It would definitely be the new highlight," linebacker Ronnie Sneed said. "It would be ending one streak and starting a new one. It's definitely something that will put this program in the right direction."
The Wildcats set out at the beginning of the season with a goal to win their final game of the season. Obviously, the intention was for that final game to be a bowl, but all that's changed. Joker Phillips knows the momentum that can be injected into a program by ending the season with a win and is more concerned about that than any ending or beginning any streaks.
"With that being out of reach, I know we're playing for still a goal out there, and our goal is to win our last game," Phillips said. "We haven't won our last game since 2009 in the Liberty Bowl and winning your last game does a lot for you in the off season."
Knowing no game in late December or early January awaits them, the departing seniors have taken the lead in approaching the Tennessee game as if it were a bowl.
"We're definitely in a bowl mindset," Sneed said. "This is the last game. I know the seniors are amped up and ready to go and the young guys want to send the seniors out with a win. This is the last time we're going to play together as one big group and everybody wants this win."
The seniors aren't happy the end of the bowl streak happened on their watch, but ending their careers with a win on Saturday would do wonders for the program they've come to love so much.
"It's our last game," offensive guard Stuart Hines said. "This is our bowl game and all we have left to play for. We have to come out and give it all we've got."
Linebacker Danny Trevathan and his fellow veterans have watched dozens of their former teammates go through Senior Day festivities, but they still don't know quite how they'll react when they're the ones singing "My Old Kentucky" home on the field with their parents. What Trevathan does know is he'll be playing with the same kind of intensity that has helped him make 135 tackles on the season and 58 in his last four outings.
"It's definitely going to be emotional, but I'm going to be into the game," linebacker Danny Trevathan said. "I can't tell you what I'm going to do or what's going to happen, but I'm going to be me and play 110 percent."
Those playing their final games in Kentucky uniforms aren't the only ones who will take the field with a sense of responsibility. UK's coaches and underclassmen want desperately to give their seniors the parting gift of a win, even in the face of the disappointment of a season falling short of expectations.
"Coaches are competitors and our guys are trying to stay positive," Phillips said. "What I want to do is stay positive for this bunch and see if we can finish out the last goal that we have been talking about. The seniors have put a lot into this program and I just want to send them out the right way."
The Cats, though, won't be the only motivated team come Saturday. The Volunteers sit one win shy of bowl eligibility and don't want to preside over the end of the long-standing steak.
"They don't want to end the streak and they're fighting to go to a bowl game this year," Hines said. "They've obviously got a lot to play for too. We're going to have to come out and play our absolute best game."
Tennessee may be below .500 on the season, but all six of their losses have come to SEC opponents ranked in the top 20 at the time of the matchup. The Vols also have the added luxury of sending their star quarterback Tyler Bray to the field. He returned from five weeks missed due to injury and led UT to a win over Vanderbilt last week.
"He looks really sharp to me," Phillips said of the sophomore signal caller. "He made some big time throws. He's got a big time weapon out there too with (Da'Rick) Rogers. If he gets it anywhere near that guy, he'll make a play for him."
At 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, Rogers reminds Phillips of Terrell Owens. That's high praise, but not all that far-fetched when you consider he leads a league full of dynamic wide receivers in catches (65) and is tied for the lead in receiving yards (1,002). Remarkably, 52 of the sophomore's 65 catches this year have resulted in first downs or touchdowns.
"He's really young," Phillips said. "A guy that's as young as he is doing what he's doing in this league (is impressive) and he's done it with three different quarterbacks."
Bray and Rogers may jump off the page in the passing game, but if Phillips has learned anything from past games against Tennessee, it's that the outcome is determined in the running game. UK has lost four of its last seven matchups against the Volunteers by six points or less, two of which have come in overtime, so Phillips believes controlling the line of scrimmage and taking care of the football will be the factors that will determine the outcome Saturday.
"The thing it comes down to is who can run the ball, who can protect the ball," Phillips said. "Last year we didn't protect the football (in a 24-14 loss). We had our opportunities. We let the ball get away from us a couple times. The thing we have to do is take care of the football. We've got to stop the run, and we've got to be able to run the ball and make plays in the passing game."