KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Kentucky couldn't send Joker Phillips out as a winner.
Tyler Bray went 20-of-34 for 293 yards with four touchdown passes Saturday as Tennessee defeated Kentucky 37-17 in a Southeastern Conference matchup that pitted a lame-duck coach against an interim coach. The game drew an announced crowd of 81,841 at Neyland Stadium, though it appeared no more than 60,000 fans were actually in attendance.
Phillips finished his three-year tenure as Kentucky's coach with a 13-24 record after being told Nov. 4 that he wouldn't return next season. Tennessee offensive coordinator Jim Chaney served as the Volunteers' interim coach in place of Derek Dooley, who was fired Sunday after going 15-21 in three seasons.
"It was a hard-fought game," Phillips said. "I'll tell you this, the one thing I'm most appreciative of is how the players have handled the last three weeks. Originally, I didn't want to be a distraction and make them go through this. I wanted those guys to have their time. One of the reasons why is you think, 'How can I push these guys? Why will they listen to me?' We've got good kids. And I'm so appreciative of the way they handled it."
Kentucky had trounced Football Championship Subdivision program Samford 34-3 last week in its first game since Phillips' firing. The Wildcats dearly wanted to give Phillips a proper sendoff by beating Tennessee for a second straight season.
One of the biggest highlights of Phillips' Kentucky tenure was a 10-7 victory over Tennessee last year that ended the Vols' 26-game winning streak in this annual series.
"It was very important for us players, especially after how much he gave to this program and how much he put into it," Kentucky tailback Jonathan George said. "Not only him, but the seniors and the other coaches as well. We know all those guys put a lot into this program from the time they've been here. It would have been a great feeling to send those guys out in great fashion, especially beating Tennessee."
Tennessee instead helped Chaney make the most of his brief stint as the Vols' man in charge.
"At the beginning of the week, it was a little rugged, no question," Chaney said. "Dealing with change is difficult, but as the week progressed, by Friday, I thought we were close to being ready to go play a football game. How they'll react in an environment of an SEC ballgame was what I was unsure about, but I felt when we got the ball (on the game's opening drive) and scored, I felt pretty comfortable."
Bray had plenty to do with that.
The junior quarterback threw touchdown passes to four different receivers Saturday and ended up throwing for 3,612 yards and 34 touchdowns this season, the second-highest yearly total by any Tennessee quarterback in either category. Peyton Manning threw for 3,819 yards and 36 touchdowns in 1997.
Bray and junior wide receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson now must decide whether to return to Tennessee for their senior seasons or enter the NFL Draft. All three are projected to get taken in the first two rounds if they choose to turn pro. None was willing to make any announcements Saturday.
"Who knows?" Bray said in response to a question about whether this might have been his last game at Neyland Stadium.
George ran for a 45-yard touchdown and La'Rod King caught 10 passes for 78 yards for the Wildcats. Kentucky quarterback Jalen Whitlow went 29-of-45 for 225 yards with one touchdown pass and no interceptions.
Tennessee led 20-7 in the second quarter before George's touchdown and Craig McIntosh's 29-yard field goal made it 20-17. Tennessee put the game away late in the third quarter when Bray threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to Mychal Rivera and a 21-yarder to Patterson.
Missed opportunities haunted the Wildcats for much of the day.
Kentucky (2-10, 0-8 SEC) drove inside the Tennessee 40 on each of its next three possessions after George's touchdown, but the Wildcats scored a total of three points during that stretch. Kentucky failed to convert on fourth-and-inches from the Tennessee 39 and missed a 36-yard field goal on their final two possessions of the second quarter. The Wildcats kept the ball for 7 ½ minutes on the opening possession of the second half, but they settled for McIntosh's field goal after having second-and-goal at the 4.
"You have those 'X' plays in a game that you need to make," George said. "Some of those plays, we just didn't capitalize. I think it did hurt our chances in coming back and winning."
Kentucky didn't win a single SEC game all season while relying heavily on underclassmen. The Wildcats headed into their season finale having used a combined 27 true freshmen and redshirt freshmen. Even though he won't be coaching these underclassmen anymore, Phillips believes they provide plenty of hope for the future.
Phillips offered one bit of advice for Kentucky as it prepares to choose his successor.
"The one thing I have to say is give the guy a chance," Phillips said. "This is Kentucky football. We don't bring in guys who can go to the NFL every two years. Give the guy a chance. I'm not saying I didn't get a chance, but I think given a chance, this thing can be good."