LEXINGTON, Ky. — Inside a small interview room in the bowels of Commonwealth Stadium, Tennessee football coach Derek Dooley tried to make sense of the nonsensical late Saturday afternoon.
His Volunteers having just lost 10-7 to a Kentucky program they had beaten for 26 straight years — a UK team that started a wide receiver at quarterback who couldn’t throw a forward pass — Dooley said, “I did believe we were going to hit a place that wasn’t good. Our execution was just so poor.”
He was specifically talking about an offense that finished with 276 total yards (59 more than UK’s 217) but just one score — an early-fourth-quarter touchdown bomb from Tyler Bray to Rajion Neal that covered 53 yards.
That pulled the Vols within the final score and gave considerable hope to Big Orange fans that they would rally at the end, much as they had so many times previously since their 26-game winning streak over UK began in 1985.
Even Dooley said, “I thought we would be able to make enough plays to get it down there and win the game, but it wasn’t our day.”
It wasn’t their day largely because the Vols managed only 61 rushing yards against a UK defense that stood 11th against the run in the Southeastern Conference, surrendering more than 194 yards a game.
Then again, as Dooley noted, “Their rush defense is no worse than our rush offense.”
But what may have been worse when it mattered most was sophomore quarterback Bray, who fought off a weeklong cold well enough to take the field but could never seem to fight off the haze that sometimes accompanies a cold.
“It shouldn’t have affected me at all,” Bray said. “I went out there and played horrible. First half, I was terrible. Second half, I had that one drive, that was about it.”
Dooley reiterated that Bray isn’t the same player he was before breaking his thumb on his throwing hand against Georgia on Oct. 8.
“I told you guys when he came back [from the thumb], he’s not the same guy,” Dooley said. “We gritted one out last week [against Vanderbilt]. Then he got sick. Maybe I shouldn’t have played him. Probably a dumb decision.”
The decision is sure to be second-guessed, but no one was second-guessing returning Bray to the starting lineup after the Vols were crushed at Arkansas with true freshman Justin Worley under center.
No, what happened Saturday goes deeper than Bray or the offensive line or UK somehow winning with a senior quarterback who hadn’t lined up at that position since high school.
“It’s real disappointing,” Dooley said, “but we’re going to have to learn from it and begin our climb in the offseason. [This is] something that should never happen at Tennessee.”
Perhaps it will never happen again. But the words of receiver Neal will burn Big Orange hearts for much of the offseason.
Said Neal of that awful start, which now runs Dooley’s mark at UT to 0-14 when trailing or tied at the half: “We just came out a little slow. Everybody’s motors were a little down. Before we knew it, it was just a little bit too late.”
Too late to climb out of a place that isn’t good.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...