There are certain games that you’ll remember forever. For this Kentucky Football fan, it’s the 1997 win over Alabama, the 2007 wins over No. 1 LSU and Louisville, the 2011 win over Tennessee with Matt Roark at quarterback, Lamar doing the Heisman pose then fumbling in 2016, and the streak-busting dub in The Swamp in 2018. Kentucky’s 34-7 win over Tennessee is now on that list. Not only is it the Cats’ first win in Knoxville since 1984, it’s their most lopsided win over the Vols since 1935. For as crappy as 2020 has been, it at least gave us this.
The way it happened was just icing on the cake. None of us knew what to expect coming in. The Cats had yet to put together a complete performance, the offense and defense bouncing on a see-saw through three games. Although ranked No. 18, Tennessee looked vulnerable, but would inevitably bring out the worst in Kentucky, with Jarrett Guarantano doing as he usually does against the Cats and picking apart the defense. Instead, he threw two picks, which turned into 14 Kentucky points. Even though the offense struggled to get off the mat in the first half, the defense carried them through, notching four turnovers to make it ten takeways through six quarters. Yet, years of Volunteer beatdowns had us all fearing the worst heading in halftime, especially when Tennessee scored to make it 17-7.
This Kentucky team did not follow the old script. The defense forced a three-and-out and Terry Wilson, who faced criticism all week, led the Cats down the field, feeding Chris Rodriguez and throwing a touchdown pass to Allen Dailey to make it 24-7. Complaints about the offense dissipated as Kentucky maintained control and put the Vols on their heels, resulting in choruses of boos and an appearance from Tennessee’s third-string quarterback. As the seconds ticked down towards victory, you could feel the wall of fear, ten feet tall from years of heartbreaking losses, come crumbling down and unfettered joy peeking through. When the clock finally hit 0:00, if you’re like me, you probably just stared at the TV for a few seconds while realization sunk in.
That’s because, when it comes to Tennessee, it’s always something. For as much progress as the program has made under Mark Stoops, the Vols still had something over the Cats, even in 2018 when Kentucky was clearly the superior team. After the Florida streak was snapped — arguably even before — Tennessee is undeniably the program that has lived in Kentucky’s head the most; that’s what made today’s methodical drubbing in a quiet Neyland Stadium so satisfying. Behind a stout defense and rumbling run game, the Cats exorcised yet another demon.
Adding to the emotions is one man in the middle of it all: John Schlarman. The former Kentucky lineman’s battle with cancer has been well-documented, and after one of the most difficult weeks he’s had, he still made the trip to Knoxville and got the game ball, a moment that will tug a tear from us all.
— Kentucky Football (@UKFootball) October 17, 2020
What happens from here? Due to a scheduling shift, Kentucky has Missouri next week and Georgia after that, setting up the program’s next big step on October 31 in Kroger Field. There were enough great moments in today’s game to make you dream a little bit.
But for now, I’m going to revel in this. It’s a break-out-the-bourbon type of win. It’s a call-your-family type of win. And, as annoyed as I was with my dad for taking my uncle to the ’97 win over Alabama instead of me, I was happy that he was able to witness today’s victory from his recliner in Danville. Every time I would get my hopes up that Kentucky would beat Tennessee growing up, he’d temper them with tales of sitting in a freezing cold Neyland Stadium watching the Cats lose. Losing to Tennessee is a trait ingrained in us all, so enjoy this moment. They don’t come around that often.