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November 27, 2011They covered their eyes and hid their faces and tried to block out the 26 years of anguish and pain.
The record will show there were 59,855 souls at Commonwealth Stadium on Nov. 26, 2011, but stories told in living rooms across the state will indicate there were far more than that present to witness history.
For 26 years, there had been nothing but suffering and defeat. And so they hid their faces in fear and in embarrassment.
Then they wept.
Behind the most unlikely of heroes, Kentucky (5-7, 2-6 Southeastern Conference) ended a 26-year losing streak against rival Tennessee (5-7, 1-7 SEC) with a 10-7 win on Saturday. Senior wide receiver Matt Roark made an emergency start at quarterback with starter Maxwell Smith and backup Morgan Newton both out with shoulder injuries.
With the weight of the nation's longest losing streak weighing heavy, Roark and the Kentucky defense pried an unlikely victory away from the Volunteers. It was the final game for 21 seniors, who closed their careers with one of the biggest wins in program history.
When the team gathered on Friday night, each of the seniors told their teammates what they meant to them.
"At the end, I asked their brothers if they were willing to fight, scratch and claw to give their big brothers a memory of a lifetime," Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips said. "And they were."
After, the crowd stormed the field. Seniors Winston Guy and Danny Trevathan embraced the crowd in their final game as Wildcats. The players wept openly on the sidelines as fans surrounded them. Roark was carried off the field on the shoulders of the crowd.
Roark was forced into playing after Smith sprained his shoulder in last week's loss at Georgia. He found out early on Tuesday he'd play the entire game at quarterback. Roark had been an emergency option at quarterback for the Cats most of the season, but hadn't taken snaps in a game at the position since high school.
The Wildcat offense marched down the field for a field goal on the opening drive before the Vols made adjustments. Kentucky had six three-and-outs on 13 possessions and mustered just 217 total yards on offense, but that was all they needed. They built a 10-point lead thanks to a third quarter touchdown and hung on after Tennessee responded with a touchdown of their own to pull within three.
"This last game will be something I'll never forget," senior linebacker Ronnie Sneed said. "I can say that for all the seniors. It really overshadowed any bad thing that happened this whole season."
The defense held strong. Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray passed for 215 yards and had a 53-yard touchdown pass to Raijon Neal, but never got comfortable. He threw two interceptions, one of which came while the Vols were driving for a score and the other to clinch the game for the Wildcats.
Tennessee mustered just 61 yards on the ground as well, and their defense slowly wore down against the grit of Roark and the Neolithic offense. Roark completed 4-6 passes for just 15 yards, but led the team on an eight-play, 77-yard drive to score the game-winning touchdown.
"This wasn't about plays, it wasn't about schemes, it wasn't about adjustments," offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said. "There weren't many adjustments we could make. It was going to be about heart, pride, character, and toughness."
With Kentucky's school-record streak of five consecutive bowl games in the rearview mirror and rumors about Phillips swirling, the team rallied for one last game. Athletics director Mitch Barnhart issued a statement within minutes of the game ending re-affirming that Phillips would return to coach the Wildcats next year.
"I couldn't be more happy for Coach Joker," defensive coordinator Rick Minter said. "He's our guy, he's our leader; a true, homebred Kentucky guy."
Sneed said beating Tennessee was better than a bowl game. The win also denied the Volunteers a trip to the postseason as they finished one win short of becoming bowl-eligible.
Senior linebacker Danny Trevathan said there was no other way he would want to end his career.
"Everybody felt it," senior linebacker Danny Trevathan said. "I felt it before the game. I felt it during the game. The one legacy I'm trying to leave behind is 'Play your heart out.'"
For more than a generation, the losing streak had been more than a string of defeats. It was a curse on the program; an impervious fortress that produced nothing but failure; a quixotic goal that left dreams in tatters.
"When you're preparing for the game, it's just another game," offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said. "You don't work any harder because it's Tennessee than you do any other week. But when that clock hit double zeroes and the game was over, it's special. There's no question.
"I told our guys, 'One thing that can't be taken from you is memories.' You can lose your health, you can lose your wealth, you can lose a lot of things. But you can never lose your memories. I'm going to remember this for a long time."
Phillips indicated after the game there were no injuries suffered during the win. But a few Cats remain banged up.
Junior quarterback Morgan Newton, who entered the game in the closing seconds to kneel out the clock, will undergo shoulder surgery on Tuesday.
Freshman quarterback Maxwell Smith is not expected to undergo surgery for his sprained shoulder.