Staff Photo by Staff Photo by Dan Henry / Chattanooga Times Free Press - UT's Nick Reveiz (56) celebrates his team's 24-14 victory over UK with fans early Saturday afternoon.
KNOXVILLE — Definitely more than 30 and probably more than 40 entered as scholarship or nonscholarship players. By Saturday afternoon, there were 15 seniors left in the University of Tennessee football program.
It was a shortened senior day in Neyland Stadium.
Those who stayed had a fine time, though.
The Volunteers finished a perfect November and secured bowl eligibility with their fourth consecutive win — a 24-14 victory over Kentucky.
“We’re not champions, but we’re not quitters, either,” senior wide receiver Gerald Jones said. “We were 2-6, but we never quit. Nobody can ever call us quitters.”
Most of the 15 seniors practically had to be dragged off Shields-Watkins Field after the game.
The locker-room celebration temporarily took a back seat to hugs and high-fives from many of the 101,170 spectators who stayed in Neyland well after the final whistle.
“We were 2-6, but 100,000 people kept coming to cheer for us,” said senior defensive end Gerald Williams, who cleared academic hurdles for three years before finally enrolling at UT. “We haven’t won as many games as we wanted to, and we’ve been through a lot, but this is a special place.
“I can’t believe it came so fast. We’ve been through a lot, but to leave with one last win for the Vol Nation, we had to do this. We couldn’t leave the fans disappointed.”
Coaches, players and fans seemed far from disappointed afterward.
“I cried a lot today,” said senior middle linebacker Nick Reveiz, a walk-on turned team captain and a second-generation Volunteer. “Just leaving the field, being able to celebrate with the fans, it was just incredible. It’s something I’ll never forget.
“I wanted to spend the night out there [in the stadium]. I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want it to be over.”
But it’s not over, thanks to a 26th consecutive win over the Wildcats.
Craig McIntosh’s extra point tied the score at 14 early in the third quarter after Kentucky senior quarterback Mike Hartline threw a 2-yard play-action touchdown pass to wide-open freshman tight end Tyler Robinson — who, like versatile Wildcats junior star Randall Cobb, attended Alcoa High School near Knoxville.
Kentucky also cruised down the field on its first possession of the first half, taking an early lead on senior tailback Derrick Locke’s 17-yard touchdown run.
But the two early-half scores were 100 percent of the Wildcats’ scoring against an improved UT defense.
The Vols retook the lead on junior tailback Tauren Poole’s 2-yard touchdown run with 50 seconds left in the third quarter, and senior Daniel Lincoln’s 36-yard field goal with 9:19 left pushed the lead to two possessions.
“It’s hard to describe how proud I am of this football team,” first-year UT coach Derek Dooley said. “Sitting there at 2-6, and people are talking about us being the worst football team in Tennessee history, and nobody in this organization flinched. I’m real proud of them for that. We never got affected by the results. We kept improving each week.
“We played one heck of a football team out there today, and we played one heck of a football game.”
The Wildcats, meanwhile, were left with another short-but-long bus ride back up Interstate 75 after another loss to a program they haven’t beaten since 1984.
First-year Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips, like just about everyone else in Neyland on Saturday, pointed to Locke’s fumble into UT’s end zone with 0:22 left in the first quarter. On a first-and-goal play from the 1-yard line, Locke couldn’t corral a Hartline handoff and lost the ball into the end zone.
Reveiz, who said the fumble “came from the grace of God, because no one was near [Locke],” emerged from the pile with the ball.
“It was a rough one,” Phillips said. “I’ve never been in a game where you felt as it you had as much control of a game, had a chance to go up 14. How quick things change. We’ve got to learn that when you get guys down, you’ve got to keep them down.
“You think you have control of the football game, and you look up and you’re down seven points. That tells me that you’ve turned it over and you’ve given up big plays on defense, and that tells the story of what happened.”
Saturday’s story wouldn’t have been as satisfactory for the Vols without Denarius Moore. The surging senior wide receiver packed a month’s worth of highlights into one afternoon, catching seven passes for 205 yards and a touchdown.
“The guy was going loco on everybody,” Dooley said in reference to the celebratory hip-hop dance Moore and several other Vols do after making big plays. “I told him to get some oxygen, because we were going to keep throwing it to him. And we did. And he did great.”
Moore became the first Vol with two career 200-yard receiving games, and he had both in a 28-day span. The speedy, soft-spoken Texan had 228 receiving yards in UT’s October loss at SEC Eastern Division champion South Carolina.
“It’s a blessing,” Moore said. “It’s an honor to have this feeling right now. “We talked about [going out with a win], but it really doesn’t matter unless we go out and do it. And that’s what we did today.”
And because they won, they left Neyland in pads for the last time with unforgettable memories.
Saturday’s start was special, too. Jones and Reveiz also momentarily wept before the game, as they walked through the “T” to hug Dooley and receive applause from the crowd.
“That was the first time I’ve experienced anything like that,” Jones said. “I didn’t even cry in high school. I was ready to get up out of there. But this ... the fan support was great. They stuck with me in my four years of being here. I’ve had my ups and downs — a bumpy roller coaster — but they’ve stuck with me and stuck by my side, and I’m just blessed to be here. It was just a lot of things happening at once. It was just very emotional for me.
“I love this place, man. I love it.”
Without a win over the Wildcats, though, Saturday’s good memories would have ended at that point. But with a win, they didn’t.
“When I realized we were going to win, all the hard work culminated,” said Reveiz, who cried several times Saturday. “To win four in a row, when you’re sitting there at 2-6, quite honestly, who thought it was possible to win every one? It was just incredible to see our team right through. Around the town, I thought the only people that believed in us were the players and the coaches. I was just incredible to see our team respond.
“It’s hard to think about it being over, but I gave Tennessee everything I had. And we’ve got one more game.”