KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tyler Bray threw four touchdown passes without an interception Saturday as Tennessee defeated Kentucky 37-17 to assure that the Volunteers wouldn’t go winless in Southeastern Conference competition for the first time in school history.
Bray went 20-of-34 for 293 yards Saturday and threw touchdown passes to four different receivers. He passed 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.
This season finale between two of the SEC’s worst teams 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 there weren’t more than 60,000 fans actually in attendance.
Kentucky’s Joker Phillips finished his three-year tenure as Kentucky’s coach with a 13-24 record after being told Nov. 4 that he wouldn’t return next season. One of his biggest highlights was a 10-7 victory over Tennessee last year that ended the Volunteers’ 26-game winning streak in this annual series. Tennessee offensive coordinator Jim Chaney served as the Volunteers’ interim coach in place of Derek Dooley, who was fired Sunday after going 15-21 in three seasons.
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 Tyler Bray to Justin Hunter. Tennessee (5-7, 1-7 SEC) had to call a timeout after its 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 Tennessee 39 late in the first half.
Tennessee’s Michael Palardy had an extra-point attempt blocked, the fifth time Tennessee has 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 Volunteers 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 Cordarrelle Patterson in the third quarter.
Bray, Hunter and Patterson now must decide whether to return to school for their senior seasons or enter the NFL Draft. All three are projected to get taken in the first two rounds if they choose to turn pro.
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 their final two possessions of the second quarter. The Wildcats kept the ball for 7 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.
After working from the press box as Tennessee’s offensive coordinator for the first 11 games of the season, Chaney worked from the sidelines Saturday as interim head coach. Tennessee was using an interim coach for the first time since Phillip Fulmer coached the first three games of the 1992 season as 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 Volunteers have finished below .500 in three consecutive years since 1909-11. Tennessee also will not be playing in a bowl game in back-to-back seasons for the first time since being left out four consecutive years from 1975-78.