LEXINGTON, Ky. — Tennessee showed up to a cold, fairly empty Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday night with little on the line.
The Volunteers didn't play that way, though.
Even though its goal of a bowl game and hopes of a winning season were dashed by Vanderbilt a week ago, Tennessee ended its first season under new coach Butch Jones with a 27-14 win at lowly Kentucky in the season finale.
In notching their first road win since 2010, a streak of 12 games, and their first win outside the state of Tennessee since 2009, the Vols were sharp early, scoring the game's first 20 points. Then they held off rally attempts by the Wildcats, who finished 2-10 under first-year coach Mark Stoops.
Kentucky's last SEC win came against Tennessee here two years ago, when a receiver-turned-quarterback led the Wildcats to a 10-7 upset of Derek Dooley's Vols in a game that knocked Tennessee from a bowl game.
After Tennessee scored the 2013 game's first three touchdowns, there was no chance of a repeat, as the Vols completed a 5-7 season that included a 23-21 upset of South Carolina in Knoxville last month and four losses of at least 28 points by Oregon, Alabama, Missouri and Auburn.
An offense that was abysmal a week earlier in that 14-10 loss to the Commodores found success against the SEC's 13th-best defense. The Vols' scoring drives of 94 and 98 yards in the first half were their longest of the season. Tennessee entered the game with just eight plays of 40 or more yards in the season's first 11 games.
The Vols had three such plays -- Rajion Neal's 60-yard touchdown run, Josh Dobbs' 43-yard touchdown pass to Jason Croom and Dobbs' 40-yard scoring run -- in the first half alone against the hapless Wildcats.
Tennessee's seniors helped ensure their final games in orange ended in a win.
Neal cracked the 1,000-yard mark for the season on his long scoring run and registered another 100-yard rushing game.
Defensive Corey Miller had 3.5 sacks -- the first from a Vols defensive lineman since that big upset of the Gamecocks and the second-most by a Tennessee defender since Reggie White had four against The Citadel in 1983. Miller broke that mark late in the game and forced a fumble recovered by senior linebacker John Propst.
Michael Palardy had four punts of at least 50 yards and put five more boots inside the 20-yard line and at least two inside the Wildcats' 5.
After building a 20-point lead, Tennessee was unable to deliver the knockout blow, though the Wildcats were unable to cut their deficit to one possession.
Clinging to a 27-7 lead, Dobbs led the Vols down the field with his arm. Throwing to a receiving corps missing two of its starters, the freshman threw strikes to Johnathon Johnson and Devrin Young, two dimunitive slot receivers. The hookup with Johnson was a 26-yarder on third down.
Two plays after hitting Young for a first down, Dobbs peppered an accurate pass to a well-covered Young to restore a 27-7 advantage for the visitors.
Tennessee's defense, solid all night, allowed Kentucky tailback Dyshawn Mobley to get loose for a 53-yard run on the ensuing possession, but the Vols recovered and stopped Mobley inches short of the goal line to quell the Wildcats' attempt to chip away at their comfortable lead.
Though Tennessee suffered its fourth consecutive losing season, the Vols avoided losing to Vanderbilt and Kentucky in the same year, which they've not done since 1964.
Now the Vols begin the offseason that will lead into Jones' second year in charge of the program feeling good after finishing the season with a win. Tennessee likely will lose its entire starting offensive line and six senior defensive linemen, and another open competition at quarterback awaits. A highly touted 2014 recruiting class still needs finishing touches.
Tennessee easily could have checked out after a late-season four-game losing streak, but the Vols showed some resiliency in coming out and finishing the season in the victory formation.
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...