Running back Montario Hardesty’s 20-yard touchdown run in overtime gave Tennessee a 30-24 win over the Kentucky Wildcats Saturday night in Commonwealth Stadium.
It was the longest run of the night for the senior tailback, and UT head coach Lane Kiffin thought it was a fitting finish to Hardesy’s final regular season game.
“I was excited (about) the way that we finished and loved the style that the tailback finished in,” Kiffin said.
It was the 25th consecutive victory for the Vols over the Wildcats, the nation’s longest winning streak between two teams who meet annually.
Hardesty finished with 179 yards and three touchdowns on 39 carries, all career-highs. Kiffin was not worried about the amount of carries the team captain was receiving.
“(It was) his last regular season game,” Kiffin said. “There was no way to say that if he got to a certain amount of carries that they were going to take him out.”
Kiffin said the only series Hardesty missed during the game was in the second quarter when he got poked in the eye and had to go to the sidelines to put his contact back in.
Hardesty has made the most of his final season on Rocky Top. He arrived at UT as a highly-talented back from New Bern, N.C., and was a star in fall camp as a freshman before a torn ACL against Ole Miss ended his 2005 season early. Injuries have plagued Hardesty ever since.
After spending the past three seasons playing behind Arian Foster, Hardesty’s career numbers entering this season were 1,046 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns on just 278 carries.
The new coaching staff gave Hardesty the opportunity to become the Vols’ featured back even after the top-ranked freshman running back in the country, Bryce Brown, committed to UT and was cleared to play in early August.
Kiffin commented in October that he wanted 85 football players like Hardesty to build his program around because of his personality and the way he plays.
Hardesty has rushed for 1,306 yards and 12 touchdowns in twelve games this year, averaging 108.8 yards a game, ranking him third in the SEC. Hardesty credits his determination and perseverance over the past five seasons for his success.
“I’ve worked hard going into this year,” Hardesty said. “It’s good to see that the hard work is paying off on the field.”
Hardesty believes this coaching staff’s zone blocking scheme has been a better fit for him than the previous offenses he had at UT, as he sees himself as a “one cut and go” running back.
Hardesty will enter the team’s bowl game needing only 158 yards to become the school’s single-season rushing yards leader, currently held by Travis Stephens, who gained 1,464 yards on the ground during the 2001 season.