LEXINGTON, Ken. – Tennessee finally played the game it had been needing over the past few weeks.
The Vols ran the football, got good quarterback play and made timely defensive stops in a 27-14 win over Kentucky on Saturday night in Lexington.
It's too little, too late to extend UT's season, but the Vols will carry some degree of momentum into the offseason. They also snapped a 12-game road losing streak and avoided becoming the first team in program history to drop eight games in one season.
Despite playing for little more than pride against the Wildcats (2-10, 0-8 SEC), Tennessee wasted little time showing it was ready to play in Lexington. Running back Rajion Neal took the second play of scrimmage 60 yards for an early touchdown run for the Vols.
“Rajion Neal getting us started – getting us some momentum,” said coach Butch Jones. “When you go on the road, we always talk about you’re responsible for creating your own momentum.”
"It was huge,” added freshman quarterback Joshua Dobbs. “We were able to dominate the line of scrimmage all night. It was a great way to start the game with a big momentum run. That is exactly what we needed and were able to get it."
Neal, a senior playing his final game as a Vol, eclipsed the 1,000-yard plateau for the season and finished the year with UT’s best rushing effort (1,124 yards) since Montario Hardesty in 2009.
Dobbs then accounted for the next two touchdown via big plays – a 43-yard pass to receiver Jason Croom, who made an acrobatic catch after a Kentucky defender missed the interception, and a 40-yard rush that capped off an eight-play, 98-yard drive to put the Vols up 20-0 after a missed extra point by kicker Michael Palardy.
“The concentration that Jason Croom had on that long touchdown pass – that’s something that we’ve been missing in our offense,” said Jones. “That consistent style of big plays and we see what happens when we create big plays. It creates momentum and touchdowns. We’ve been due [for some big plays]”
Kentucky quarterback Maxwell Smith, a surprise starter for the Wildcats over Jalen Whitlow, lobbed a 19-yard touchdown pass to senior tight end Anthony Kendrick to cut the Vols’ lead to 20-7 at the break.
But Dobbs, who was playing with multiple minor injuries (thumb, knee), wasn’t done. The true freshman engineered a 58-yard drive midway through the third quarter that led to another TD pass. This time he found receiver Devrin Young on a crossing route in the back right corner of the end zone for UT’s fourth touchdown, putting the Vols up 27-7.
Kentucky advanced all the way to the Tennessee 1 on the ensuing drive, but running back Dyshawn Mobley, a Knoxville native, was stopped just short of the goal line on fourth and goal, helping preserve UT's lead. The 'Cats tacked on a late score on a pass from Smith to receiver Javess Blue with just under four minute to play, but Kentucky got no closer.
Tennessee’s defensive front came up huge all night. It came into the game without a sack since the meeting with South Carolina on Oct. 19. Led by 4.5 sacks from Corey Miller, who broke Reggie White’s school record for sacks in a game, the Vols collected five in the game.
Miller’s name will go down in the record book, but Jones credited the entire defense for the sack party.
“I think a mentality to get to the quarterback,” he said of what was different on Saturday. “There are a lot of sacks and everybody points to individuals, but they’re called opportunity sacks. And it may be the other defensive end doing his job and forcing the quarterback to push the pocket. It was a great team effort up front.”
“You never think something like that is going to happen, especially on the last game of your career,” added Miller. “I went back to some of the guys who were there to help, like A.J. [Johnson] making big plays on pass-rush calls that freed me up.
“The best way to go out would’ve been a bowl game and having a couple extra weeks with my guys, but it’s not a bad way to go out, I guess.”
Others on the team agreed. It doesn’t make up for missing a bowl, but getting a win on the road to wrap up a season, and in some cases, a career, is the next-best thing for the Vols. It starts all over on Monday, however.
Approximately 60 scholarship underclassmen will get back to working out. Jones expects 14 mid-term enrollees from the 2014 class to join in January as well. Jones doesn’t want to experience another season without the postseason at Tennessee.
“It’s expected that we go to bowl games in the future,” he said.
That won't stop the Vols from celebrating Saturday night, however.
• Croom left the game in the first half with an injury. Coach Butch Jones confirmed that the redshirt freshman, who had a career day with two catches for 74 yards and a TD, broke his collarbone.
• Junior linebacker A.J. Johnson hit the 100-tackle mark for the season second consecutive season. A potential early entry into the 2014 draft, Johnson said he is "unsure" if he will return to Tennessee next year.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga