KNOXVILLE — Phillip Fulmer came onto the field for his final game as Tennessee coach surrounded by his family. He left on the shoulders of his surrogate sons, members of the current Volunteers team who sent the dean of the Southeastern Conference coaching ranks out with a victory.
Jonathan Crompton’s big pass set the tone for a dominant second half, and the Vols dispatched Kentucky by a 28-10 margin Saturday evening.
In Fulmer’s entire tenure as head coach, Kentucky never beat Tennessee in 17 tries.
Tennessee outgained Kentucky with 235 yards to their 135 in the second half, scoring 21 points. Eight times this season, the Vols failed to muster 21 points in an entire game.
Still, after an emotional Vol Walk and pregame ceremonies honoring the 24-man senior class as well as Fulmer, the first half likely lulled some of those in attendance to sleep.
Both teams entered Saturday’s Southeastern Conference tilt at Neyland Stadium ranked among the bottom 20 programs in the nation in total offense. They lived up to that modest billing, combining for six three-and-out possessions in the first half.
Kentucky (6-6, 2-6) did enough offensively to draw first blood with five minutes left in the first quarter, on a 40-yard field goal by Knoxville native Lones Seiber.
Tennessee (5-7, 3-5) had a chance to answer at the end of the opening period, but a 31-yard field goal try by Daniel Lincoln sailed wide right.
The Vols finally got something going at the tail end of the first half. After the Tennessee defense pinned Kentucky deep in its own territory, and the ensuing punt took a friendly big orange bounce, UT set up shop at the Wildcats’ 35 yard line.
Tennessee embarked on a 12-play drive, including seven with goal to go and four tries from the Kentucky 1 after a pass interference penalty on the Wildcats’ David Jones. Crompton finally put it in on a sneak as time expired.
After generating six points with his legs on a short run, Crompton produced six more with his arm. On the third play of the second half, Crompton hooked up with Denarius Moore on a 63-yard touchdown pass.
The ball was perfectly thrown, and it marked Tennessee’s longest offensive play of the entire season.
The long-awaited big play was followed by a long-awaited flash of Eric Berry’s potential on offense. Berry took a direct snap and dashed 23 yards for a first down.
The drive bridged the quarter break, and Lennon Creer capped it with a short run that boosted UT to a 21-3 lead and had the Wildcats staring down a 24th consecutive loss to Tennessee.
Kentucky’s losing streak to the Vols is the longest current skid in the nation.
Tennessee wasn’t done, though. Gerald Jones broke off a 55-yard run out of the G-Gun, ruled out of bounds at Kentucky’s 1. Jones ran it in himself a few snaps later, giving the Vols a 25-point lead.
Kentucky finally reached the end zone on a short run by Alfonso Smith, but by then the issue had been decided.
Crompton, erratic and ineffective as Tennessee’s quarterback throughout the season, put together his best effort in the finale of the 2008 campaign. He finished 6-of-8 for 101 yards with the long TD to Moore.
Jones led UT on the ground with 67 yards, also returning a punt 14 yards and a kickoff 39 yards. Jones also caught three balls for 15 yards.
Arian Foster finished with 59 rushing yards, well short of the 174 he needed to surpass Travis Henry as the Vols’ all-time top rusher.
EXTRA POINTS: Fulmer ends his stint as Tennessee’s head coach with a 152-52 record. … Official attendance was 102,338 but physical turnout appeared well short of that total, which is based off tickets sold. … Kentucky quarterback Randall Cobb, an Alcoa native, struggled. He generated just 45 yards total offense before giving way to Mike Hartline midway through the third period. …