KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- Tennessee's 22nd straight victory over Kentucky was a struggle -- which didn't bother Volunteers coach Phillip Fulmer too much.
"It's great to win when you don't play particularly well," he said. "I don't remember a game in this series ever being easy at all, and this is an example of their defense doing a great job of taking the challenge."
LaMarcus Coker plunged 1 yard for a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter, and the No. 19 Volunteers' defense preserved the lead to beat Kentucky 17-12 on Saturday.
But Kentucky (7-5, 4-4 Southeastern Conference), ranked last in the nation in total defense, made the Vols work to the very end for this one.
The Vols (9-3, 5-3) had only three possessions in the first half that resulted in a touchdown, a field goal and a blocked field goal.
"Are we going to screw around and let a team that shouldn't beat us beat us? We couldn't have field goals and score touchdowns. We talked a lot about pride," Fulmer said about what the team heard at halftime.
After going ahead with Coker's score at the beginning of the fourth quarter, Tennessee looked like it could grind out the clock and score again, but Ainge was tackled and fumbled on third down. Tennessee recovered but had to punt.
The Wildcats got it back with 8:30 left and marched inside the Vols 10. They had a delay of game penalty on second-and-goal at the 3, and their possession ended with two consecutive incomplete passes.
Tennessee took over with 3:02 to go and ran out the clock.
"We had a chance to win the darn game, and we didn't get it done," Kentucky coach Rich Brooks said. "The good news is we had a chance."
Meachem had six catches for 116 yards, giving him the school record for single-season receiving yards at 1,265. He surpassed Marcus Nash, who had 1,170 in 1997 with Peyton Manning at quarterback.
Meachem is a junior and could leave early for the NFL. Asked about returning for his senior season, he said, "Why wouldn't I?"
Kentucky was leading 12-10 at halftime, and Lones Seiber missed a field goal in the third quarter that would have extended its lead. Coker scored on the Vols' ensuing drive.
The Wildcats didn't look at all like a team that allowed 501 yards in a 42-40 win over Louisiana-Monroe last week and nearly ended the second-longest losing streak in Division I-A against one team.
The Vols had 336 yards of total offense and were held to fewer than 20 points for only the third time this season.
"We won. That's all that matters," Ainge said. "There was someone either (with) a miscue with a route, a miscue with a throw or a protection. Something went wrong. We stopped ourselves."
The win gave Tennessee second place in the SEC East behind Florida and prevented Kentucky's try for eight wins for the first time since 1984 -- the last year they won in this series.
"It hurts to lose," Kentucky tailback Rafael Little said. "The last time we were down here we lost the same way. We can't keep doing that every time we come down here."
After the Vols regained the lead with Coker's touchdown, the Wildcats got into Tennessee territory with Andre Woodson's 41-yard pass to Dicky Lyons, but they couldn't get another first down. On fourth-and-2 at the Vols 28, Turk McBride tackled Little for a loss.
Kentucky went ahead a few seconds before halftime after Tennessee fumbled a kickoff. Seiber, who had missed an extra point on the Wildcats' previous score, kicked a 20-yarder to put Kentucky up 12-10.
The game marked a homecoming for Kentucky quarterbacks coach Randy Sanders, who resigned a year ago as Tennessee's offensive coordinator.
He had Woodson playing well. He was 26-of-39 for 282 yards and threw a 5-yard touchdown to Little in the second quarter.
Little ran for 119 yards on 23 carries. Jacob Tamme had 119 yards receiving on seven catches.
Sanders spent 17 years as a coach with Tennessee after playing quarterback for the Vols. Fulmer promoted him to coordinator when David Cutcliffe left to be head coach at Mississippi before the 1998 national championship game.
Fulmer and Sanders hugged and talked on the field before the game. While they were talking, Cutcliffe walked over and hugged Sanders and spoke for a moment.
"We're awful grateful for what Randy did while he was here. He'll will always be a Vol deep down," Fulmer said.
Sanders left without talking to reporters.