Quick Summary: It took eight tries, but Tennessee (5-7, 1-7 SEC) finally got its first SEC win of the season.
The Vols, led by interim head coach Jim Chaney, defeated Kentucky 37-17 in front of an announced crowd of just more than 81,000 at Neyland Stadium, allowing 13 departing seniors to go out as winners.
Tennessee jumped out to a 20-7 lead early in the second quarter behind a 21-yard touchdown pass from Tyler Bray to Zach Rogers, a two-yard touchdown run from Wildcat quarterback A.J. Johnson and a 42-yard strike from Bray to Justin Hunter.
Kentucky pulled it to within 20-17 after a 45-yard touchdown run by running back Jonathan George and a 29-yard field goal from kicker Craig McIntosh. That would be the last time the Wildcats would score.
The Vols tacked on two second-half touchdowns, one from Bray to Mychal Rivera for 29 yards and one from Bray to Cordarrelle Patterson for 21 yards. Kicker Michael Palardy added a 33-yard field goal to stretch the score to the final margin.
The Vols outgained the Wildcats 457 to 412 in total offense. Tennessee was led by Bray’s 293 passing yards and four touchdowns. Seven Vols combined for 164 rushing yards and nine different receivers caught at least one pass.
It was over when: Kentucky, trailing 34-17, went for it on fourth-and-one at the Tennessee 31-yard line with 7:32 remaining. The Vols snuffed out the pitch play for a loss, took over on downs and ran the clock down.
Tennessee player of the game: Quarterback Tyler Bray had a nice bounce-back effort after his shaky game at Vanderbilt last week. He completed 20-of-34 passes (58.8 percent) for 293 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. He avenged two of his worst career performances, last week’s loss and a 10-7 loss at Kentucky last season.
Kentucky player of the game: Freshman quarterback Jalen Whitlow completed 29-of-45 attempts (64.4 percent) for 225 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and ran for 31 yards on the ground. His previous career high for passing yards was 114 against South Carolina on Sept. 29.
Unsung hero: Tennessee linebacker/Wildcat quarterback A.J. Johnson had a strong performance. His one offensive play was a two-yard touchdown run. He added 14 tackles and his first career sack on defense to finish the season as the SEC’s leading tackler (11.5 per game).
Three stats of note:
1. Tennessee had 457 yards of total offense: That is a significant upgrade over its 276-yard performance at Kentucky last year in a 10-7 loss. It wasn’t a perfect day, but the Vols offense finally led them to an SEC win.
2. Cordarrelle Patterson had 158 yards of total offense: The receiver, running back, kick returner and punt returner set the school’s all-time, single-season record for all-purpose yards with 1,858.
3. The Vols held Kentucky to 17 points: That was the fewest points an FBS opponent has scored on Tennessee this season. Tennessee’s defense also only gave up just three points in the second half, another season-best.
Where does Tennessee go from here: Saturday was a four-hour break from the ongoing coaching search in Knoxville, but all the attention will switch back to that soon. The win was a nice send-off for a group of thirteen seniors who saw more downs than ups in their time in orange and will give returning players and fans something positive to chew on over the offseason. However, the overall task of rebuilding a struggling program that has won two SEC games in the last year still has a lot of work left.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @Daniel_LewisCBS.