Nov. 29, 2009
BY DREW EDWARDS
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Saturday night had a ring of the familiar for Tennessee running back Montario Hardesty.
Not because it was another overtime game in Commonwealth Stadium. And not because the Vols picked up their 25th consecutive victory over Kentucky, either, thanks to his 20-yard run on the first possession of overtime that clinched a 30-24 win.
Hardesty only flashed back about 24 hours to Friday night in the team's hotel, where coaches showed an abbreviated version of the "Thrilla in Manila." Specifically, the late rounds of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier's final fight, when Frazier kept fighting despite the fact he could barely see.
"It was crazy because it was déjà vu," he said. "I just saw that last night. I just wanted to keep on going at it, man."
That wasn't a problem on Saturday, even when Hardesty couldn't see on the field.
Twice, he got hit hard enough that his helmet moved and blurred his vision. In the fourth quarter, he lost a contact lens and had to leave for a play.
That and a second quarter series with Bryce Brown was about the only time Hardesty wasn't on the field in racking up a career-high 179 yards on a career-high 39 carries and three touchdowns.
The regular season ended much like Hardesty ended Saturday's game - too determined to be denied, whether he could always see where he was going or not.
"I wasn't tired at all," Hardesty said. "I told coach and the team, just keep getting me the ball. I'm not going to get tired. I didn't ever want to come out of the game."
When the Vols threw the ball on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line earlier in the game, he delivered that message again.
"Thirty-nine carries, to run like that at the end says a lot," UT coach Lane Kiffin said. "That's about a mentality. That's about being a champion. Like being a heavyweight fighter. You just keep playing even though your legs aren't really moving, you just go. That's what he was doing. I'm sure he was tired, but he didn't allow himself to. He's a warrior and has proved it all year long. Unbelievable story."
A dependable one, too, and not just when it comes to picking up yardage.
Hardesty now has 1,306 yards rushing for the season, just 158 shy of UT's single-season mark. What's more impressive, though, is the fact that he carried the ball 264 times this season and never lost a fumble.
"I want to be dependable, man," said Hardesty "I didn't want to drop any passes. I didn't want to have any fumbles. I didn't want to miss any protections. Those were some of my goals. It feels good to not put the ball on the ground. That gives the coaches a lot of confidence to keep giving me the ball. That feels good that coach would have the confidence to keep giving me the ball and realize I'm not going to give it up for anything."
There wasn't any danger of that happening Saturday.
And while Hardesty kept flashing back to Ali-Frazier III, he got a better ending than Frazier did.
In that fight, Frazier's trainer threw in the towel before the start of the 15th round. Hardesty scored the winning touchdown by finishing the game just like he's finished every run on the practice field - running hard and running past the last defender on the field.
For a few moments, maybe he couldn't see. But he always knew where he was going.
"For being as banged up as he is, then coming here and carrying this team and carrying the ball 39 times for three touchdowns, that shows a lot about the player." said receiver Gerald Jones, who had five catches for 113 yards, including a huge catch for 14 yards in overtime that set up Hardesty's run. "He should be recognized."
Containing Cobb: Randall Cobb racked up 186 all-purpose yards Saturday, including 101 on the ground - mostly taking direct snaps at quarterback.
He was every bit the threat that the Vols thought he would be heading into the game.
"He's a great player," Kiffin said. "I wish he was on our team. Really dynamic. Can do so many things with the ball. The next one that comes around like that, we got to keep him home. We're going to have to play him a little bit longer."
Bowling: The Vols improved their bowl destination with Saturday's win. The Outback Bowl on New Year's Day remains Tennessee's most likely destination, where it would face a team from the Big Ten. The possibility also exists for the Outback Bowl to take Ole Miss, which could bring the Cotton Bowl back into play for the Vols.
The Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta would also be a possibility if UT fell below the Outback and Cotton, which share third choice of SEC teams after the BCS and Capital One Bowl.
The bowl picture is a little murkier after Saturday's games with six SEC teams, including Tennessee, finishing the regular season 7-5. Bowl bids will be announced next Sunday.