While there was a different feel inside Neyland Stadium Saturday afternoon with the neatly pressed orange pants missing from the Tennessee sideline, it didn’t faze the Vols too much as they sent 13 seniors out on a winning note defeating Kentucky 37-17.
The Vols (5-7, 1-7 SEC) avoided being beat in consecutive years by the Wildcats, which hasn’t happened since the 1976-1977 seasons.
“I couldn’t have been happier with how the game finished for the senior class,” said interm head Jim Chaney. "They were very good all week. It was emotional for them on Friday night as we let them speak to the team. I couldn’t be more pleased when they came out today, and the team gathered around one another to get a victory for Tennessee and for the senior class.”
It may not have been the storybook ending that senior wide receiver Zach Rogers and his fellow seniors were hoping for, but they are truly thankful and grateful for their time wearing the big orange.
“To be a Tennessee Vol it’s just being a hard worker no matter what happens and just playing for the Big Orange,” said senior tight end Mychal Rivera. “I’m going to miss the fans out here. They are so committed. It’s crazy to see fans out at the Vol walk at 9:30 a.m. in the morning when it’s freezing and they’re all out there cheering. I’m going to miss that a lot.”
Junior quarterback Tyler Bray keyed the rout of the Wildcats, completing 20-of-34 for 293 yards and four touchdowns. For Bray it was the tenth time in his career he has thrown for four touchdowns in a game.
He finished the season with 3,612 passing yards and 34 touchdowns, which are both second best all-time in UT football history behind Peyton Manning.
In the first drive of the game for the UT offense an effective running game created holes in the Wildcats secondary for Bray, who found senior Zach Rogers for a 21-yard touchdown strike.
“There were a lot of mixed emotions, happy and sad at the same time,” Rogers said. “It was good to go out on senior day in front of my family and friends and all of Vol nation and get a win.”
The Wildcats answered back with an 11 play, 64-yard scoring drive, but then failed on a onside kickoff attempt. Tennessee later converted the good field position into a 2-yard touchdown run by A.J. Johnson to take a 14-7 lead in the first quarter.
The touchdown run for the Vols sophomore linebacker, and the SEC’s leading tackler, marked his team high sixth rushing score on the season.
Johnson had a game high 14 tackles along with the first sack of his career.
While the Vols were outplayed in the second quarter, being outgained 167-80, they went into the locker room at halftime with a 20-14 lead.
In the second half the Vols took control.
Bray found Rivera for his fourth score with 5:24 left in the third quarter to take a commanding lead.
Rivera finished his third season as a Vol with career highs in receptions (36), yards (562) and touchdowns (5).
Senior fullback Ben Bartholomew sealed the victory by moving the chains late in the fourth quarter on a fourth-and-1.
With the season, and some careers, over the senior class had time to reflect on their time at Tennessee.
“Being a Vol for these last four years has meant a lot to me,” Rogers said. “You can always be a Vol for life and come back and support these guys.”
Chaney believes the adversity that the senior class has been through has prepared them for the real world.
“It’ll be interesting to see in 20 years exactly what these young men are doing,” he said.