LEXINGTON, Ky. — It’s been a topsy-turvy season in college football.
Still, one element of the Southeastern Conference balance of power held true Saturday — though Tennessee’s 23rd straight win over Kentucky was anything but automatic.
It took four overtimes for the Volunteers to slug out a 52-50 victory, and clinch a spot in the SEC championship against LSU.
In the process, No. 19 Tennessee (9-3, 5-3) blew a 17-point lead in the final 16 minutes of regulation, shook off a horrendous second half for the offense, got seven touchdowns from Erik Ainge, gave up six TDs thrown by counterpart Andre Woodson and blocked a chip-shot field goal in the second overtime.
“You just do not get better FB than what was played tonight,” said UT coach Phillip Fulmer, whose Vols won their fifth straight. “Our team has some shortcomings in some areas but heart and fight’s not one of them.”
This past Tuesday during his weekly news conference, Fulmer said he didn’t care if the Vols blocked a field goal to win 3-0 or won 52-50.
He was right on both counts.
“Maybe I should go to Las Vegas. Play the numbers,” the coach quipped.
Instead, Fulmer will be busy in Atlanta for the Vols’ third trip to the conference title game since 2001. Tennessee hasn’t won a league crown since 1998.
And Kentucky came perilously close to continuing that drought.
After rallying from a 24-7 deficit at halftime and a 31-14 hole late in the third quarter, the Wildcats (7-3, 3-5) got a first-and-goal at the 5-yard line with 22 seconds remaining but could not get into the end zone. They settled for a game-tying field goal by Lones Seiber.
A Knoxville native, Seiber got an even bigger chance in the second OT. The Wildcats picked off Ainge, then basically sat on the ball to set up a 34-yard field goal try.
“I thought it was over,” said Wildcats receiver Steve Johnson, the recipient of two TD catches.
Instead, Vols defensive tackle Dan Williams got up to block the kick.
“As much emotion as I had inside me I was just telling myself to jump as high as I can,” Williams said. “It just so happened it hit me in the facemask.”
Williams made the play out of the poetically named “desperation block” scheme: no worries about a fake, just stop the kick at all costs.
“I never got that sinking, sick feeling,” Fulmer said of the field goal. “I got a little sick feeling about the whole scenario as it changed a couple of times because really we had the game in hand for a long period of time. And couldn’t hold it.”
Both teams scored touchdowns and failed on the mandatory 2-point conversion in the third OT. Arian Foster was flagged for a personal foul after being denied on his conversion run, setting up UT back at the 40 to start the fourth overtime session.
The extra distance didn’t matter. On the first play, Ainge hit Quintin Hancock on a go route and the sophomore streaked some 20 yards after the catch for the score. Ainge then connected with Austin Rogers, who stretched across the goal line after getting hit hard on the doorstep for the 2-point conversion.
“You can’t hold anything back in that situation,” Ainge said.
Kentucky answered with a 2-yard touchdown run by Derrick Locke, but on the conversion, Woodson was forced to scramble and Antonio Reynolds dragged him down shy of the end zone.
The game-winning tackle sparked a wild celebration by Tennessee’s players, coaches and support staff.
The Vols dominated the first half, compiling a 24-7 lead and scoring on the first play of the game when Ainge hit a wide-open Foster on a wheel route that netted 65 yards.
Kentucky got on the board with 12:12 left in the second quarter when Woodson found a leaping Johnson on a 17-yard TD.
With that score, Tennessee surrendered its 300th point this season. The Vols entered Saturday having yielded 294 points, second worst only to the 2004 team that gave up 295 points.
Kentucky added plenty to that record-worst total, scoring 24 points in the second half while limiting the Vols to 119 yards of offense.
It wasn’t enough for the Wildcats, though.
“It’s kind of been the story of the season,” Ainge said. “When we need it, we get it.”
UT got what was needed to go to Atlanta. It just took four overtimes to do it, and marked yet another game where the Vols won as an underdog.
One guy on Rocky Top hopes that trend continues next week.
“I don’t want anybody to pick us to win this game,” linebacker Jerod Mayo said after a 19-tackle performance. “Anybody at all. We’ll go out there and get the job done.”