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Kentucky 17 @ Tennessee 37: Postmortem of a season to forget

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UK quarterback Max Smith is just one Wildcat who suffered serious injury during the 2012 season.
UK quarterback Max Smith is just one Wildcat who suffered serious injury during the 2012 season.

The Kentucky Wildcats (2-10, 0-8) football season mercifully came to an end this afternoon on the turf of Neyland Stadium, as the 'Cats dropped their final game of 2012 schedule to the Tennessee Volunteers, 37-17.

Congratulations to the Vols (5-7, 1-7) for bouncing back from last week's 41-18 pasting at the hands of Vanderbilt to win their first SEC game of the year. Perhaps bolstered by the early-week firing of head coach Derek Dooley, the Vols, led by quarterback Tyler Bray (with offensive coordinator Jim Chaney taking over head coaching duties), took advantage of UK's secondary missteps by completing 20-of-34 passes (58.8 percent), as Bray tossed four touchdown passes on his way to 293 yards through the air.

Although the 'Cats gave a valiant effort -- UK possessed the ball nearly nine more minutes than UT, put up 412 yards of offense, only 45 fewer total yards than the Vols, and the Wildcat defense held UT to 4-of-11 third down conversions -- Tennessee's offense netted more big plays (21, 29, and 42 yard scoring strikes) and stuffed the 'Cats offensive attack for much of the second half after being up only 20-14 at halftime.

UK quarterback Jalen Whitlow had a nice day, as the freshman signal caller passed for 225 yards on 29-of-45 passing (64.4 percent completion rate), and one touchdown. Additionally showing his dual-threat capabilities, Whitlow rushed nine times for 31 yards (3.4 yards per carry).

Whitlow committed no turnovers, and although not perfect on the day, for the most part he looked the part of a quarterback ready to battle Maxwell Smith and Patrick Towles for the starting QB spot in 2013.

Kentucky running backs Raymond Sanders and Jonathan George, both back next year, combined to carry the pigskin 24 times for 113 yards (4.7 ypc), as George scampered 45 yards for the the 'Cats only rushing TD. A touchdown which brought Kentucky within 20-14 with just over 10 minutes remaining in the first half.

On the day, UK rushed the ball for 167 yards (three more yards than UT) on 37 attempts, a solid 4.7 yards per carry. The Kentucky defense, though, a unit which struggled through injuries and poor play from the opening bell of the 2012 season, gave up 5.1 yards per carry to the Volunteers on the afternoon, helping seal UK's final game fate.

Kentucky's leading wide-out La'Rod King, capped off a solid individual year with 10 catches for 78 yards (7.8 yards per reception), and UK's two primary ball carriers were affective catching the ball out of backfield as Sanders and George combined to catch nine passes for 80 yards on the day (8.9 ypr).

The 'Cats were able to claw within three points at 20-17 on a Craig McIntosh 29-yard field goal midway through the third quarter, but UT quickly answered with two scoring strikes. The first a Bray to Mychal Rivera 29-yard touchdown, followed by a Bray 21-yard hookup with Cordarrelle Patterson, putting UT up 34-17 going into the fourth quarter, effectively ending UK's chances of ending a forgettable 2012 campaign with a second consecutive victory over Tennessee.

The 2012 Wildcat football season will be remembered as the year of the catastrophic injury, as the 'Cats absorbed the early season loss of presumptive starting tail back Josh Clemons, as well as multiple injuries to secondary starters, resulting in redshirts being pulled from several members of the defense. Top UK defensive lineman Mister Cobble also missed two games to a mystery illness which hospitalized the big man for a short time. After his return to the lineup, he never regained his pre-illness form.

And of course, the Wildcat quarterback spot seemed to be the recipient of a bit of voodoo magic hocus pocus, as one UK signal caller after another suffered serious injury, and in Max Smith's case, a season-ending injury.

In a crossroads season in which Joker Phillips needed a few breaks to go his way in order to retain his head coaching position, the polar opposite occurred, and with the 'Cats facing one of the nation's toughest schedules, loss after loss began to be piled one on top of the other.

One of the lone bright spots to take away from an unfortunate 2012 season is the fact that UK's best players, both at the skill positions and on the respective lines, are underclassmen. And with the carnage of a 2-10 season in the rear-view mirror, UK football fans enter into what should be an interesting off-season, as a coaching search will hopefully rejuvenate a battle-weary, apathetic fan base, and give legitimate hope for a brighter UK football future.

Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!

Follow me on Twitter @KenHowlett