KNOXVILLE – The setting might not have been what they imagined.
There was a sparse crowd at Kentucky’s Commonwealth stadium in a game between teams that finished the season 5-7 and 2-10. Officially nothing was on the line when Tennessee and Kentucky met on Saturday night, a game the Vols won 27-14.
But for several Tennessee seniors, the on-field action on Saturday couldn’t have gone better if they had scripted it themselves.
“Very proud of our senior class,” said coach Butch Jones. “To send them out with a victory – we always talk about you’ll always remember your last game. Everything these young men have been through, to be able to send them out on a victory and a victory on the road.”
That win was in large part thanks to the effort of senior defensive end Corey Miller. The native of Wellford, S.C., came into Saturday’s game with just five sacks in 49 career games. Perhaps he envisioned recording a sack, but notching 4.5 – topping the previous school record of four held by the legendary Reggie White – wasn’t anywhere in his mind.
“I’m speechless about it,” Miller said. “You never think that something like that will happen, especially in the last game of your career.”
It did. And Miller had a lot of help from his fellow senior defensive linemen in a disruptive day for that unit. Daniel McCullers, Daniel Hood and Marlon Walls were among the other senior D-linemen pushing the pocket to help Miller in his career night.
And though his stat line wasn’t as impressive as Miller’s, Ooltewah native Jacques Smith got in on the sack party as well, recording half a sack to go along with three other tackles and an additional tackle for loss in his final game for the Vols.
Kicker/punter Michael Palardy also capped off what will go down as one of the greatest kicking careers in UT history from a statistical standpoint. He finishes third in program history in field goal percentage (74 percent) and second in punting average (42.9 yards/punt).
He finished with a bang punting on Saturday. The senior’s final two punts were a 69-yard bomb that rolled out at the UK 1-yard line and a perfectly-executed pooch punt that landed on the 2-yard line and sat on the 3 as if it were a shot onto the green by Tiger Woods. Often inconsistent in years past, Palardy turned the corner in 2013, punting and kicking with a new level of confidence.
“Coach Jones instilled a lot of confidence in the seniors,” Palardy said. “The adversity we’ve faced has made us stronger players and stronger people.”
Offensively, running back Rajion Neal and four senior offensive linemen set the tone early and finished strong. Neal, running behind seniors Ja’Wuan James and Zach Fulton on the right side, broke free for a 60-yard touchdown run on the second play from scrimmage to spot the Vols an early 7-0 lead.
Neal finished with 134 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries on the night. His strong night helps him leave in 12th place on UT’s all-time leading career rushing list.
Other seniors might not have broken a record or climbed any all-time lists, but they had their moment as well on Saturday.
Reserve linebacker John Propst recovered the fumble caused by Miller’s final sack to seal the victory for the Vols. Linebacker Dontavis Sapp recorded seven stops and two tackles for loss. Linebacker Brent Brewer had five tackles and a tackle for loss. Even lesser-used special teamer Raiques Crump added a pair of tackles.
“They mean so much to our football program,” Jones said of this senior class. “They’ve been through a lot. We chronicle it every week. And to be able to get a victory on the road was very, very fulfilling to see that happen for these kids.
“Somebody told me [the senior class has been through] 42 coaches in five years. That’s a lot of transition. They’ve been remarkable in terms of buying in and doing everything we’ve asked them of them. So to get that victory was very special.”
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter@DanielNooga