KNOXVILLE — If this really was Tyler Bray’s last performance in a Tennessee uniform, the junior quarterback made it one to remember.
It just happened to come in an otherwise forgettable game.
Bray went 20-of-34 for 293 yards with four touchdown passes and no interceptions Saturday for the Volunteers, who defeated Kentucky 37-17 to assure that they wouldn’t go winless in Southeastern Conference competition for the first time in school history.
Bray threw for 3,612 yards and 34 touchdowns this season, the second-highest yearly total by any Tennessee quarterback in either category. Peyton Manning threw for 3,819 yards and 36 touchdowns in 1997.
The difference is that Manning led Tennessee to an SEC championship in 1997. Tennessee (5-7 overall) finished 1-7 in SEC play for the second straight season.
“I thought we’d be going to a bowl game, but things didn’t go our way this year,” Bray said. “We didn’t play well.”
Bray and junior wide receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson now must decide whether to return to Tennessee next season or enter the NFL draft. All three are projected to get taken in the first two rounds if they turn pro. None was willing to make any announcements Saturday.
“Who knows?” Bray said in response to a question about whether this might have been his last game at Neyland Stadium.
This season finale between teams seeking their first SEC win pitted a lame-duck coach against an interim head coach. The game drew an announced crowd of 81,841 at Neyland Stadium, though it appeared no more than 60,000 fans were actually in attendance.
Joker Phillips finished his three-year tenure as Kentucky’s coach with a 13-24 record after being told on Nov. 4 he wouldn’t return next season. One of his biggest highlights was a 10-7 victory over Tennessee last year that ended the Vols’ 26-game winning streak in this series.
“It was a hard-fought game,” Phillips said. “The one thing I’m most appreciative of is how the players have handled these last three weeks.”
Tennessee offensive coordinator Jim Chaney served as the Vols’ interim coach in place of Derek Dooley, who was fired Sunday after going 15-21 in three seasons.
“At the beginning of the week, it was a little rugged, no question,” Chaney said. “Dealing with change is difficult, but as the week progressed, by Friday, I thought we were close to being ready to go play a football game. How they’ll react in an environment of an SEC ballgame was what I was unsure about, but I felt when we got the ball (on the game’s opening drive) and scored, I felt pretty comfortable.”
The game featured enough mistakes to make it clear why both teams are seeking new coaches.
A holding penalty on Tennessee offensive tackle Antonio Richardson nullified a 33-yard touchdown pass from Bray to Hunter. The Vols had to call a timeout after their defense had just 10 players on the field at one point in the second quarter. Kentucky’s Raymond Sanders slipped in the backfield and was stopped for a 2-yard loss on fourth-and-inches from the UT 39 late in the first half.
Tennessee’s Michael Palardy had an extra-point attempt blocked, the fifth time the Vols missed a PAT this season. Kentucky’s Craig McIntosh was wide left on a 36-yard field goal just before halftime.
Bray threw a 21-yard touchdown pass to Zach Rogers and a 42-yarder to Hunter in the first half to help the Vols grab a 20-7 advantage. After Jonathan George’s 45-yard touchdown run and Craig McIntosh’s 29-yard field goal cut the lead to 20-17, Bray answered with a 29-yard touchdown pass to Mychal Rivera and a 21-yarder to Patterson in the third quarter.
Patterson finished the season with 1,858 all-purpose yards to break Reggie Cobb’s 25-year-old school record in that category.
Missed opportunities haunted the Wildcats for much of the day.
Kentucky (2-10, 0-8) drove inside the Tennessee 40 on each of its next three possessions after George’s touchdown, but the Wildcats scored a total of three points during that stretch. Kentucky failed to convert on fourth-and-inches from the Tennessee 39 and missed a 36-yard field goal on its final two possessions of the second quarter. The Wildcats kept the ball for 7½ minutes on the opening possession of the second half, but they settled for McIntosh’s field goal after having second-and-goal at the 4.
“You have those ‘X’ plays in a game that you need to make,” George said. “Some of those plays, we just didn’t capitalize. I think it did hurt our chances in coming back and winning.”
After working from the press box as Tennessee’s offensive coordinator for the first 11 games of the season, Chaney worked from the sideline Saturday. Tennessee was using an interim coach for the first time since Phillip Fulmer coached the first three games of the 1992 season while Johnny Majors recovered from heart surgery.
The season-ending victory provided some small measure of comfort for Tennessee in an otherwise disappointing year.
Tennessee recorded its third straight losing season, the first time the Vols have finished below .500 in three consecutive years since 1909-11. Tennessee also isn’t bowling in back-to-back seasons for the first time since being left out four consecutive years from 1975-78.