Tennessee running back Montario Hardesty, left, is congratulated by teammates after scoring a touchdown in overtime to give his team a 30-24 win in their NCAA college football game against Kentucky in Lexington, Ky., Saturday, Nov. 28, 2009. (AP Photo/Ed Reinke)
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Large murals outside Commonwealth Stadium pay tribute to Kentucky's Liberty Bowl win and two Music City Bowl titles from the past three seasons.
Winning in Tennessee hasn't been Kentucky's insurmountable hurdle in football, but beating the University of Tennessee has been another matter.
And the Wildcats' 25th consecutive loss to their biggest Southeastern Conference rival was another excruciating punch to the stomach.
Senior tailback Montario Hardesty broke through the middle and sprinted 20 untouched yards to the end zone in overtime, giving the Volunteers a 30-24 win.
"This was probably the hardest loss I have had to stomach in my career so far," Kentucky senior linebacker Micah Johnson said. "I am really at a loss for words right now."
Tennessee (7-5, 4-4) secured second place in the SEC Eastern Division and improved its chances of playing in the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl, while the Wildcats (7-5, 3-5) lumped themselves near the middle of the league's bowl pecking order.
"Obviously I'm pleased with the outcome of the game, for our players to make so many plays down the stretch," Vols coach Lane Kiffin said. "But obviously, I wish it hadn't come to that."
UT outgained Kentucky 446-261, but the Wildcats used a series of big defensive and special-teams plays to hang around and nearly beat the Vols for the first time since 1984.
"I thought, for the most part, a lot of the game we dominated them," Kiffin said. "We just didn't seize the opportunities."
Not until Hardesty polished off his 39-carry, 179-yard night.
"I swear I'm still not tired yet," Hardesty said. "But we're fixing to get on that bus and go home, and I'm going to be tired then. And I know I'm going to be tired tomorrow, man."
Hardesty showed no signs of sluggishness on the final play. He saw a seam and ripped right through the Wildcats.
"It was just an inside zone play, and we'd been running the inside and outside zone all night," he said. "My right guard and center got great blocks to get me to the second level. The hole opened up and I saw it, and I just wanted to get through it as fast as I could and go celebrate with the team."
The Vols didn't lead until the final minute of the third quarter, when Baylor School graduate Devin Mathis kicked a 30-yard field goal to give them a 24-21 advantage. That drive started at the Kentucky 28-yard line, when Rico McCoy forced a Randall Cobb fumble that fellow linebacker LaMarcus Thompson recovered.
Both defenses stayed stout from that point, and Kentucky forced a fumble from one of its native sons for a major momentum switch in the final minutes of regulation.
UT junior tight end Luke Stocker, a Kentucky native, fumbled a would-be first down that Wildcats defensive end Taylor Wyndham recovered at the Vols' 37-yard line with 2:21 left.
The Vols held the Wildcats to a field-goal attempt, and Knoxville native Lones Seiber was true from 23 yards to tie the game with 0:33 left.
"I'm not going to lie. I was really sick to my stomach," said Stocker, who gained 78 yards on five catches. "I'm a positive guy most of the time, though, so I just had to keep telling myself, 'The defense is going to stop them, and we're going to score and win this game.'
"I think I've already gone up to everybody on the defense and personally shook their hand and thanked them."
Kentucky punted on the game's first possession, but its defense opened the scoring moments later. UT senior quarterback Jonathan Crompton telegraphed a third-and-2 pass to junior receiver Gerald Jones, and linebacker Sam Maxwell returned the mistake 57 yards to the end zone with 10:41 left in the first quarter.
"That guy just made a great play," said Jones, whose 14-yard catch on a second on a second-and-19 set up Hardesty's winning score. "This was supposedly like the biggest home game in (Kentucky's) history, and we knew they were going to come out swinging at us. The coaches kept telling us we just had to ride it out, and that's exactly what we did."
UT and Kentucky traded touchdowns the rest of the half, and the Wildcats took a 21-14 lead on Derrick Locke's 1-yard plunge with 0:39 left in the second quarter.
The Vols drove to the Wildcats' 1-yard line on the first possession of third quarter, but Crompton was stopped just short of the goal line on a fourth-and-goal bootleg.
UT didn't stay down for much longer, though. Stocker hauled in a 16-yard touchdown pass that tied the score at 21 with 3:40 left in the third quarter.
Kentucky senior defensive tackle Corey Peters said he was "not really sure" why the Wildcats couldn't sustain success after their hot start.
"I think they just took it up to the next level, and we failed to match it," Peters said. "We kind of got lucky there was a fumble to force the game into overtime, but then we just did not get the job done.
"This hurts so much."
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