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Cats, Vols to lay it all on the line in Knoxville

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Avery Williamson, the SEC's leading tackler, will return to his home state to face Tennessee on Saturday. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics) Avery Williamson, the SEC's leading tackler, will return to his home state to face Tennessee on Saturday. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
On Nov. 26, 2011, the streak ended. For the first time in more than quarter century, Kentucky defeated Tennessee.

Having spent more than two decades as a player and coach at Tennessee, Randy Sanders has an idea what the last year has been like in Knoxville, Tenn. Based on that knowledge, UK's offensive coordinator has a pretty good idea the Volunteers will be highly motivated when the two teams match up for the first time since Matt Roark led the Wildcats to an improbable victory.

"I'm sure they've heard a lot about it from the time when that game ended all the way up to game time Saturday," Sanders said. "I'm sure we'll get their best effort. I have no question they'll be focused and ready to play."

That's not to say, however, that the Cats won't be just as ready come Saturday at 12:21 p.m. ET in Neyland Stadium.

Heading into the season's final game, motivation isn't the only thing these two teams have in common.

Both have been eliminated from bowl contention. Both have had their head coaches' dismissal announced in the last three weeks. Both teams will see Saturday's game as one last chance to play a game before offseasons of transition.

"I'm sure they'll be as hungry as we are and hungry to get a win to get us back for last year," junior linebacker Avery Williamson said. "We beat them in our house so it's going to be a big rival game. They got nothing to lose, we got nothing to lose so it's going to be a big battle."

Williamson is a native of Milan, Tenn., and is looking forward to having numerous family members in attendance. He believes they are in for a slightly more intense game than the ones they'll play in the backyard on Thanksgiving just two days before.

"It's going to be nasty," Williamson said.

Williamson and the UK defense are in for one of their sterner tests of the season.

Tennessee trails only Texas A&M in the Southeastern Conference's total offense rankings, rolling up nearly 480 yards of total offense per game. Junior quarterback Tyler Bray leads the conference in passing yardage throwing to three receivers that rank among the SEC's top 15 in yards per game: Justin Hunter, Cordarrelle Patterson and Mychal Rivera.

"They have playmakers in the right places," defensive coordinator Rick Minter said. "Quarterback has played great most of the year. The receivers are big time guys, they set the tone for this team."

"We beat those guys with an immature sophomore last year; that's what he was," head coach Joker Phillips said. "He was an immature sophomore that has grown up."

Bray and the Volunteers are coming off one of their worst performances of the season - a 41-18 loss at Vanderbilt - and will be looking to return to form in the season's final game. UK's defense, meanwhile, just played its best game of the season in holding Samford to three points, but the secondary remains inexperienced.

"We've shown people all kinds of reasons why there will be a lot of things there," Minter said. "Last game our guys played hard, played extremely well. Hopefully our guys gain some confidence down to the 12th game."

The Cats are also hoping the confidence they built last week will translate on offense against a Tennessee defense that ranks last in the SEC in points allowed. Big plays have been an issue for the Volunteer defense and UK knows it could be in for a long day if it doesn't take advantage of opportunities to hit some of those.

"My biggest fear is not capitalizing if they make mistakes," Sanders said. "If they don't make mistakes, they're a pretty solid defense. When they do make mistakes, you have to be able to capitalize on it. That obviously hasn't been our strength this year."

Freshmen Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles will once again split time at quarterback, as the Cats are expected to employ a more traditional approach than the one they used to beat the Volunteers last year. However, trickery should not be ruled out.

Last week against Samford, for example, UK ran a play for left tackle Darrian Miller that resulted in a four-yard gain. On different plays, right guard Larry Warford lined up twice in the backfield to serve as a lead blocker. Also, Morgan Newton's role as a hybrid back expanded in his last home game. In his last game, things could get even crazier.

"There are a lot of possibilities there," Sanders said. "I can't get into too much detail. If we don't run them, I'll tell you about them after the game. He's a guy that is pretty versatile in what he can do."

Last year, Sanders and Phillips had to muster every ounce of creativity they could just to devise a game plan that gave the Cats a chance to end the streak. This year, they are breaking out unseen pages of the playbook looking for an edge as they look to start a streak of UK's own.

"Two in a row would be a great way to leave," Sanders said. "Sure would."

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