LEXINGTON, Ky. - Against Tennessee, the Kentucky football team usually plays tough. The 'Cats nearly always give one of their best performances of the year and they occasionally even keep it close.
They did all those things Saturday in Lexington. And it still didn't matter.
Because Kentucky football is still ... well, Kentucky football. And once again - as if not to mess with history - that unchangeable truth eventually emerged.
It emerged in the way it always emerges.
An interception here. A costly penalty there. An out-of-bounds punt here. A fumbled punt return there.
When the game is close, UK simply finds new and creative ways to lose. After all these years, it seems to be the one thing the 'Cats have perfected.
Just lose, baby - it's still the Wildcat Way.
Remember them blowing a 21-0 lead to Tennessee two years ago and then fumbling away a last-minute chance? How about LSU's miracle touchdown last year?
There was also Florida's 18-point, fourth-quarter comeback this year, when Jared Lorenzen waited until the last few minutes of the game to throw what was perhaps the most ill-advised interception in the history of the forward pass.
And who can forget the classic 71-63 loss to Arkansas in seven overtimes? The Wildcats twice had leads of eight in the OT periods and still found a way to blow it.
"The good news to me is that we are competitive," UK coach Rich Brooks said. "The bad news is that we haven't been able to win any of those close games."
Programs like Tennessee win those games. Programs like Kentucky lose them. It's just how the college football food chain works.
"At Tennessee, we just find a way to win when it comes down to it," UT junior running back Jabari Davis said.
And it worked that way again at Commonwealth Stadium this weekend.
Like they so often do, the Wildcats keyed on emotion early and took the lead into halftime. The Vols and their fans had to be having flashbacks to 2001.
Then like they so often do, the Wildcats remembered they were in a close game and apparently remembered their role. Just 90 seconds into the second half, Kentucky had already been flagged for a personal foul and a pass interference and had already given up a touchdown and the lead.
The 'Cats and their fans had to be having flashbacks to the last five decades or so.
"I think a lot of it's just mental and being able to get over that hump," UT senior offensive tackle Michael Munoz said of UK's close-game jitters, "and that's something we need to be able to use to our advantage."
They did, of course. They always do.
For those of you keeping counting at home, that's now Tennessee's 19th win in a row against their "rivals" to the north.
And like Munoz, I'm absolutely convinced a large part of that is mental. The mental divide between the programs at UT and UK is enormous.
I know it's been well-documented, but Kentucky folds under pressure like no other. I've already given you some examples, but how about some numbers?
In the last five years, the 'Cats are a staggering 3-14 in games decided by seven points or less. And although a late Volunteer touchdown put Saturday's margin over seven points, the numbers from the game are just as telling.
By the 11:28 mark in the second quarter, Kentucky had been moving the ball well and was looking to add to its 7-0 lead. Then came its second interception of the day on UT's side of the field.
Between that point and UK's hopeless last drive in the game's closing minute, the Wildcats gained a grand total of 19 yards on 32 plays. For the rest of the game, they were 2-of-11 on third-down conversions and never got farther than Tennessee's 45.
Somehow, though, the 'Cats managed to keep it close in the second half. And we all know what that meant.
It meant they would fumble a punt in their own territory. It meant their punter would wait until the perfect time - the fourth quarter of a three-point game - to shank one out-of-bounds in their own territory.
It meant they would jump offsides on a third-and-2 with five minutes to go in a six-point game.
And of course it meant Tennessee would eventually take advantage. Because for the most part, Tennessee wins close games. For the most part, they don't tense up.
They don't think about pulling out a victory - they just do it.
So yes, UT almost always has more talent than Kentucky. And more depth. And better coach. And more on the line.
But don't let anybody tell you the difference in the two teams' mindset doesn't have anything to do with the great divide in this series.
"As far as Kentucky, they're probably just content with keeping it close and getting lucky or fortunate enough to kick a field goal to win," UT senior all-purpose standout Mark Jones said.
"When it's a close game at Tennessee, we don't even think about losing. There's not that question mark. We're gonna suck it up and get the job done."
The Wildcats usually just suck it up.
If Vol fanatics were searching for something to be thankful for this holiday weekend, that difference in mentality would be a start.
- Brett Edgerton is sports editor of The Daily Beacon and a senior in journalism. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Some things never change: another close loss for 'Cats
Published: Mon Dec 01, 2003 | Modified: Sat Aug 06, 2005 05:40 p.m.