KNOXVILLE – Last year in Lexington, the Kentucky Wildcats had a chance to knock off Tennessee but the Volunteers’ defense had a huge stop at the one yard line to seal the UT win. On Saturday, it was the UK defense that returned the favor but it didn’t take goal line stop to do it.
Kentucky’s defense forced four turnovers which the Cats turned into 17 points as they picked up their first win in Knoxville since 1984 with a 34-7 victory. The Vols fall to 2-2 overall while the Cats improve to 2-2.
Vols quarterback Jarrett Guarantano was dreadful as he threw two interceptions, both of which were returned for touchdowns. He was 14-of-21 for 88 yards and the offense only produced 287 yards of total offense and was 3-of-12 on third down conversions while the Wildcats were 6-of-12. Kentucky out-gained Tennessee 212-84 in the second half.
“We had field position early on but didn’t take advantage of it,” Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt said after the game. “In the second half, I felt like offensively, they moved us and blocked us better and we didn’t get them off the field and we didn’t do very well playing man to man. We struggled with that and (Kentucky) continued drives but when you look at this, there are lots of areas where we need to improve but it’s more about creating the right habits. It’s on everyone in this organization to really improve on that. We have to work hard to do that”.
When Pruitt was asked if he was worried about the confidence level after a poor second half performance last week against Georgia and now the home loss to Kentucky, Pruitt said “I probably should. I didn’t think we struggled as much today offensively as we did in the second half against Georgia but we made some mistakes and turned the ball over. I have been disappointed defensively because I think I know what we can do on offense to fix some of those issues but defensively, to me, there is a point in time it doesn’t matter where the other team gets the ball, it doesn’t matter what the scoreboard says, we are going to play at a level defensively and that’s it. If we come out any play four quarters or if they tell us to play until midnight, this is how we are going to play. And that’s a mindset and we aren’t there yet.”
The first quarter was rather uneventful as each team forced a turnover with Bryce Thompson recovering a fumble for Tennessee at the UK 45 and the Wildcats recovering a Guarantano fumble at the UK 27 yard line. Neither team could turn the miscues into points as the first quarter ended with no score.
Then came disaster for the Vols in the second quarter. Kelvin Joseph picked Guarantano off at the 41 and returned it all the way for the score. Matt Ruffolo’s point after was good to give the Cats a 7-0 lead. On the very next possession, Guarantano was intercepted again as Jamin Davis stepped in front of a bad pass and returned it 85 yards the other way as the Wildcats stunned the crowd of 22,519 when Ruffolo’s kick gave Kentucky a 14-0 led.
Guarantano was replaced on the next possession by J.T. Shrout but once again, the possession ended with an interception as Tyrell Aijan got in on the action with a pick at the UT 37 yard line. Kentucky moved into scoring position and got three points out of it as Ruffolo booted through a 30-yard field goal to give the visitors a 17-0 advantage. The next time Tennessee got the ball, the ground game was used heavily as at one point, Eric Gray carried the ball nine times in a row. Ty Chandler capped off a 14-play drive that covered 75 yards when he scored from the four to cut the UK lead to 17-7. That was how things stood at the half.
Tennessee led the overall yardage at the half 203-75 and limited the Wildcats to 1-of-6 on third downs. Gray had 101 yards on the ground in the first two quarters but four turnovers by the Vols was the story of the first 30 minutes of play.
Kentucky struck first in the second half when the Wildcats drove the field on a 76-yard drive and scored when Terry Wilson threw a floater to the left side of the end zone to Allen Dailey to go up 24-7. The Wildcats took advantage of Tennessee’s offensive ineptitude as they forced a UT punt and got three points on the ensuing drive as Ruffolo was true from 27 yards to extend the UK lead to 20 points at 27-7.The score stood there as the third quarter came to an end, a quarter where the Wildcats out-gained Tennessee 110-28 in total offense and went 3-for-4 on third downs.
In the fourth quarter, Wilson set Kentucky up on the doorstep when he sold a great play fake and trotted all the way down to the Vols’ five yard line. A few plays later, Chris Rodriguez barreled in from the two to give the Cats a 34-7 lead. Tennessee’s much heralded freshman quarterback Harrison Bailey was inserted into the game on the next UT drive. He showed what he is capable of as he threw a dime to Malachi Wideman who hauled it in at the UK 22 but the drive died when Bailey was incomplete on a fourth down throw at the Kentucky 10. Neither team was able to score the rest of the way and the Cats prevailed 34-7.
Wilson was efficient for the Wildcats as he went 12-of-15 for 101 yards and a score. The lone bright spot for Tennessee on offense was Gray who carried the ball 24 times for 128 yards. Davis had 12 tackles for UK and the Volunteer’s defense was paced by Quavaris Couch’s 11 tackles. “Eric is a guy who works hard at practice and he and Ty (Chandler) have good character and they will continue to try to improve in that part of our offense,” Pruitt said of his two running backs.
Things get even more difficult next week as the second-ranked Crimson Tide of Alabama come to Neyland Stadium for a 3:30 p.m. kickoff.