The University of Kentucky football team will travel to Knoxville this weekend for another chance at taking down the University of Tennessee volunteers, a team UK has not beaten since 2017.
But the last win before that 2017 victory was even more special - it snapped a 26-year losing streak, and it happened at the hands of an impromptu quarterback.
Matt Roark played many roles as a Kentucky Wildcat, including a special teams captain and wide receiver, but what many Wildcat fans remember most is his stint at quarterback during the game against UT in 2011.
Roark came to Kentucky in the fall of 2008 after being recruited out of high school, where he had played quarterback. That position is where he started his freshmen year, before switching to wide receiver. Where he excelled, though, was on special teams.
“That was where I impacted the team the most, I was a leader there – on the field, in the meetings,” Roark said. “That was my role. My role was to get everybody pumped up and excited about flying down there, running into somebody full speed even when you didn’t want to.”
His greatest skill? Blocking field goals and PAT attempts, Roark said.
“Since day one of my freshman year, first game ever playing against Louisville, they put me in to block a field goal and I blocked it,” said Roark. “Ever since then I was on field goal block, blocking kicks about six or seven times after that.”
Roark began to see more action on the field in his junior and senior seasons on the offensive side of the ball as a receiver.
But injuries plagued the Kentucky quarterback line-up late in the 2011 season. The game prior to Tennessee was a matchup against Georgia. Then-quarterback Morgan Newton went down with an injury, so Maxwell Smith came into the game for UK. But Smith, too, was injured, by a tackle in the fourth quarter that wrenched his right shoulder.
With the Tennessee team coming to Lexington in the last week of the season, Kentucky was in a tough spot and looking to notch a fifth win.
“At that point, us as players thought that Maxwell would be able to recover and go into the game against Tennessee,” Roark said. But behind the scenes, the training and coaching staff deemed Smith unable to come back in time for the game.
Coaching staff approached Roark the Monday before the Tennessee game about playing quarterback. At first, he figured he would play intermittently as wildcat offense, just a few plays here and there.
When the first team offense was called on practice at Tuesday, Roark was placed behind the center.
“I was like ‘what? The whole time?’ And that was when I found out. It was on the field,” Roark said.
“I wasn’t nervous, I was more excited, like, let’s go. What else do we have to lose?” Roark said of the opportunity.
Kentucky was sitting with a 4-6 record, and with only one game remaining, Kentucky’s hope for a bowl game was gone. The only thing to focus on was Tennessee, led by quarterback Tyler Bray.
Roark hadn’t played quarterback for over three years at that point. He had only been a college quarterback for two months before he was switched to wide receiver. Luckily, he had run wildcat offense at practice in previous years, so he had at least some experience.
“At the end of the day, that’s what I was my whole life. It was second nature to me, the most comfortable I was in my whole career offensively,” Roark said
The game against Tennessee was played on a cold November afternoon in Lexington. Before the game Roark warmed up as a receiver, gloves and all, in an effort to keep Tennessee guessing.
“It took them at least a quarter and a half before they could make adjustments and catch on to it a little bit,” Roark said.
Kentucky went into halftime with a 3-0 lead courtesy of a 24-yard field goal from Craig McIntosh in the first quarter.
Blocking up front allowed the Wildcats to rush for 202 yards overall on the ground. The line allowed Roark to rush for 124 yards, averaging over five yards per carry.
“I was just out there winging it, wheeling and dealing. Whatever came to my mind,” Roark said.
Kentucky ran many misdirection plays featuring Roark and running back CoShik Williams, who had 21 and 24 carries respectively. Williams scored the only touchdown of the day for Kentucky, a six-yard rush into the end zone followed by an extra-point attempt from McIntosh that put the Wildcats up 10-0.
The story of the game, however, wasn’t Roark’s gutsy performance on less than a week’s notice, but the defense. They gave up one touchdown, and then only in the fourth quarter.
“The defense was phenomenal, led by Danny Trevathan and the rest of those guys. It just wasn’t possible for us to lose, especially with the way the defense is playing,” Roark said. “That was probably the best the defense played in the last two years of my career.”
The win wouldn’t have been possible without the blocking defensive and offensive lines enabling the Roark and Williams.
“Everybody wanted to win. We couldn’t lose,” Roark said. “We caught breaks, we had momentum and it was just meant to be.”
The win marked Kentucky’s first victory over Tennessee in 26 years.
“For me, it was ironic, the first day on campus I played quarterback and my last day on campus I played quarterback and never in between,” Roark said.
The significance of the win was personal for Roark, whose father Ray Gover was a member of the last team to beat Tennessee in 1984. 26 years later, Roark would live up to that legacy by leading Kentucky to its streak-ending win.
After that final game Roark became a local celebrity in Lexington.
“The next six months of my life was nuts; people coming up to me, doing autograph signings and everything,” Roark said.
Every year, Roark gets text and social messages remembering his contributions to the Kentucky program. Even when talking to his old teammates, people always remember Roark for what he did for the Kentucky program. Not only for his role in snapping what was, at the time, the longest losing streak in the country, but for how he stepped up when his number was called.
“Even now, when I see a Tennessee fan and I think about it, it always tickles me for the rest of my life,” Roark said. “I remember it like it was yesterday.”
Today, Roark lives in Phoenix, Arizona with family. Like many former Wildcats, Roark still bleeds blue.
“Kentucky is still on my license plate, I’ve still got my flag at home so it’s not going anywhere,” Roark said.