LEXINGTON, Ky. — The dejection was clear on the face of every Tennessee football player who entered the postgame news conference room.
“It’s pretty depressing,” freshman safety Brian Randolph said.
The Volunteers lost to Kentucky for the first time in 26 years Saturday afternoon at Commonwealth Stadium. The loss ended UT’s hopes for a bowl game and gave it a second consecutive losing season. For all the positive feelings created from the dramatic win over Vanderbilt a week earlier, Saturday’s loss likely will bring with it an offseason of negativity.
“To be honest, we weren’t even thinking about a bowl,” said senior defensive lineman Malik Jackson. “We had a lot of young guys who thought, ‘Oh we’re supposed to beat Kentucky,’ but not really putting in the work. I feel like that’s what happened. A lot of people thought we were supposed to beat Kentucky, but it just fell in our laps.
“At the end of the day, they’re a team, too, that came out here and worked harder than we did. They deserved the win.”
Senior linebacker Austin Johnson had to battle back tears as he called Saturday’s loss the worse of his career, one that has included three coaching staffs and three losing seasons.
“Just didn’t want to go out like this,” Johnson said. “It’s tough. I had a great time here; it’s been fun. That’s a tough loss, and we’ve just got to keep moving. Wish the guys the best of luck.”
The general consensus of coach Derek Dooley and the eight players who spoke to the media was that this was rock bottom for UT’s football program.
“We’re going to begin our climb right now,” Dooley said. “At some point, we had to hit a real low point with where this program is. I knew we were going to hit one — I did. I hoped we wouldn’t, but it’s inevitable. You’re going to hit a bottom.”
UT’s offense, which managed just 276 yards, punted after three plays on its opening possession.
It was a sign of the lethargic afternoon that was to come.
“The whole game, no one wanted to be out there,” said Tauren Poole, the senior tailback who finished the final game of his career with 32 yards on nine carries. “We’re all trying to encourage people because people were out of it. When it’s like that, you’re not going to be able to execute, I don’t care where you’re at. The result was what it was: [We] couldn’t move the ball.
“I did [sense it], I really did. I was trying to get guys into it, telling them we got to move the ball, we can’t keep the defense out there. The defense was on the field for too long. It’s an embarrassment.”
Given the Vols had more to play for than the Wildcats, the slow start was a little surprising.
“I told them last week, ‘When this is your last, you want it, you want it all, you want to go for it all, you want to play for it all, you want to play every down like it’s your last,’” Poole said.
“When you’ve got another year, you’re not going to play like that. It’s obvious that that’s what happened. I’m not blaming anybody; I would never do that to this football team. It looked like no one wanted to be out there, no one wanted to play football.”
Johnson was asked what the Vols needed to do to improve the program.
“We’ve just got to get guys to step up and be leaders,” he said. “This team is young, and there are too many guys that it’s all about them, their stats and stuff. As long as they come together as a team, there’s some bright futures ahead of them.”
Some other players agreed with Johnson’s comments, while others said it wasn’t the case.
UT quarterback Tyler Bray hit Rajion Neal for a 44-yard completion in the third quarter with Kentucky leading 3-0. Two plays later, Neal took a direct snap in the wildcat formation, but the hard snap from center Alex Bullard bounced off Neal’s hand, and he couldn’t locate it. Kentucky’s Collins Ukwu recovered it, and the Wildcats scored on the ensuing possession.
“It was huge, and then I don’t know what we’re doing when we turn around and just like we’re staring at the ball thinking it’s going to pop up in our lap,” Dooley said. “You’ve got to go get the ball. Snap was a little aggressive and we didn’t field it and it was a huge play. We’re down there about to go ahead. That’s about how our execution was everywhere.”
Freshman receiver Vincent Dallas did not play Saturday after breaking his hand during practice Thursday. With the indefinitely suspended Matt Milton also not making the trip, UT was down two receivers.
Freshman linebacker Curt Maggitt made seven tackles, but he left the game in the second half and was replaced by Dontavis Sapp, who finished with six tackles. ... Representatives from the Chick-fil-a and Liberty bowls were in attendance. ... Starting free safety Prentiss Waggner left the game momentarily before returning, and the junior was replaced by Randolph with Rod Wilks sliding to strong safety. ... UT’s scoreless first half was its first since the 2008 loss to Wyoming. ... Randolph, Maggitt and freshman linebacker A.J. Johnson were UT’s top three tacklers. ... Poole, Austin Johnson and senior defensive end Ben Martin were UT’s captains.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...