LEXINGTON — Since Kentucky only beats Tennessee once every 26 years, there’s plenty of reason to still revisit Saturday’s stunning 10-7 victory over the Vols.
I still can’t decide whether to be more impressed with the guarantee Matt Roark made early last week that the Cats would win even though he knew he would be moving from receiver to quarterback even if no one else outside the team did or with the job the Kentucky defense did protecting the slim lead once Roark got the Wildcats in front.
Alabama, LSU, Georgia and South Carolina and the Commonwealth Stadium turf turned into a party place.
Even the players found themselves saying strange things after the game.
“This was our bowl game. It’s weird to say, but in the locker room it almost felt better than a bowl victory,” said junior center Matt Smith. “It is just something that has been long waited for. I can’t say enough about the guys out here and this coaching staff. The guys knew what we had with the big change at quarterback and Matt played unbelievable and all these seniors deserve this so much.”
They did, but so did Smith and the younger teammates.
Smith is a Louisville native. The Cats had already lost to Louisville this season, a huge no-no for the players and fans from Louisville. But finally beating Tennessee takes a lot of that sting away.
“I am 21 and have been a Kentucky fan all my life and I¿had never seen Kentucky beat Tennessee. It was just something that was disappointing year in, year out and to be a part of it is a dream come true,” Smith said.
Get that? Dream come true. How do you not get excited for him?
“It is something that everybody wishes they could do and I¿am just so happy to be a part of this. After being here for my fourth year, I feel like I¿am a senior and feel like this is something that everybody who has built this program up needed,” Smith said.
Say amen Big Blue fans.
“Starting next year we have some guys to replace, especially in the offensive line, but it is up to those guys who are going to be coming in and who have played this season to get things rolling and this is a great jump start for that,” Smith said.
Say a double amen Big Blue fans.
What had certainly been a forgettable season through 10 games got a lot better with the Cats’ gutsy play at Georgia and then the streak-busting win over Tennessee.
The win had to be extra special for Smith and his offensive linemen — Stuart Hines, Larry Warford, Billy Joe Murphy and Chandler Burden. They were expected to be the team’s strength, but battled injuries the first half of the year that disrupted the lineup. Still, when the offense fizzled, they accepted the blame with no excuses.
Saturday, though, the offense sizzled. I know, Kentucky had 217 yards ... but that was against a Southeastern Conference defense that knew after the first two or three plays that UK couldn’t throw the ball effectively with Roark at quarterback. UK ran the ball 56 times, and Smith loved every attempt.
“The coaches told us from Tuesday on that this would be on us and we were going to win the game for them if it was going to happen,” Smith smiled and said. “We had a new quarterback in, so there would not be a lot of checks or passing. We would be running the ball right at them and once they figured it out, we knew they would do things to stop us but it was still up to us to sort it out up front. It was a fight, especially when running the ball that much, but it was a fight we were not going to lose again.”
Smith credited senior linebacker Danny Trevathan for inspiring him and his teammates with his emotional talk about what playing at Kentucky meant to him and why the team had to win this game.
“He is a guy that is always kind of motivational and he is back there telling us to get going,” Smith said. “He is a guy that speaks with his actions louder than his words and for him to stand up there and tell us all from the bottom of his heart that he felt we were all brothers and everything he does for us ... he has our back.
“Especially with a guy that plays defense and I don’t talk to a lot or see in huddles, for him to have the offense’s back means a lot. They saved us in this game. Other than one play they held Tennessee to nothing. It was a great way for Danny to go out.”
It was, but it was also a great way for unsung heroes like Smith and his offensive line teammates to go out this year, too.