Kentucky travels to Knoxville to take on the Tennessee Volunteers after a 24-2 win over Mississippi State. The Wildcat defense answered the bell and grounded the Air Raid. Offensive struggles plagued the performance, but a win against an old time rival would even the Win/Loss column. Let’s take a look at how the Cats can pull out a victory.
Average 4.5-yards per carry. Kentucky is averaging five yards per rush. That number was inflated in the Ole Miss game when the Wildcats rushed for 400-plus. Tennessee is allowing 3.3 yards per carry and 136 yards per game.
No turnovers. UK had one fumble vs. Mississippi State. Six interceptions boosted the Cats’ turnover margin; however, turnovers on the road can be detrimental. Ball security will be at a season-high emphasis.
Stretch the defense and threaten safeties. The Cats were unable to do this vs. MSU. Its two safeties played in the box and created chaos in the run and pass game. To counter this, WRs will need to present a threat to the UT safeties. Two Josh Ali shuttle pass completions for 22 yards and two receptions for five yards were the WR corps totals from last Saturday. This number needs to higher.
No defensive havoc plays. Tackles for loss early in a possession, turnovers, sacks, and forced fumbles are examples of defensive havoc plays. UT has 19 tackles for loss, 9 QB sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 2 interceptions, and 7 QB hurries on the season. Kentucky can’t get off schedule or get behind the chains early in possessions. If it does, Tennessee will dial up blitzes and other exotic schemes on 2nd/3rd down.
Be efficient on 1st down. First down positive plays are the ideal way to stay on schedule. Until the Cats establish a consistent passing identity, it must be effective in the early downs in order to stay away from 3rd and longs.
Return to the Wildcat identity. Run the football behind that offensive line. Mark Stoops’ teams are known for their physical nature. The Wildcats need to return to that personality. Tennessee and Kentucky similar teams. The Vol defense plays extremely hard.
Completion percentage of 65% or higher. Terry Wilson’s first two games produced a 64.8% and 77% completion percentage respectively. That number dropped to 40% vs. Mississippi State. There will be series that depend on chain-moving passing plays. Wilson will have to play a solid game for the Cats to have a chance to win.
Defend the 50/50 ball. Tennessee used these plays to secure a win in Lexington in 2019. 6’2, 210-pound WR Josh Palmer is UT’s primary target in the Red Zone and has been successful in these situations through three games. Palmer has three touchdowns this season. The opposing offense has scored seven touchdowns in nine trips to the Red Zone.
Travel defensive intensity and effectiveness. A great deal of accomplishing this objective is influenced by confidence. UK’s dominant defensive performance against the Air Raid should act as a catalyst going forward.
Limit Tennessee to less than 125 rush yards. The Vols are averaging 121 yards per game. Keeping its running game at or near its average will be considered a win for the defense. Tennessee gained -1 yard vs. Georgia. This number significantly influenced its season average. However, UT has an upper-echelon offensive line and two running backs that can cause damage in Ty Chandler and Eric Gray. Both are averaging 4.7 yards per carry.
Tackle. This especially applies to 3rd down where the Volunteers are converting 26.8%. It also refers to line-of-scrimmage and in the open field. Kentucky’s tackling was excellent on all three levels against the Bulldogs. Once again UK will face a RB that effectively catches the football out of the backfield. Eric Gray has 10 catches for 98 yards for an average of 9.8 yards per catch.
Prevent momentum changing plays. The Cats can’t give up explosive or chunk plays. WR Josh Palmer is averaging 16.21 yards per catch, Brandon Johnson 13.11.
Pressure Guarantano. The Tennessee quarterback was turnover prone in Athens. Kentucky consistently pressured K.J. Costello by rushing three defensive linemen. That needs to carryover during its trip to Knoxville and make the UT signal caller uncomfortable in the pocket.
No critical errors. A successful two-point conversion at Auburn. A missed field goal and PAT vs. Ole Miss. A bad punt snap that resulted in a 48-yard loss and a safety against Mississippi State. Saturday could be a field position, turnover margin driven slugfest. Special teams have to contribute and be sound in all areas.
WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN?
Let’s be honest here; Kentucky’s historical success rate in Knoxville is exactly stellar. The Cats’ last win in Knoxville came in 1984. These two teams are eerily similar. Both have high-level offensive lines. Both quarterbacks are mobile. Defenses are physical with head coaches that were defensive coordinators. For UK to win, it’s got to play clean. Win the turnover margin. No special teams errors. Use Max Duffy to influence field position. In other words, Saturday could go against the SEC’s recent high-scoring trend and become a good old fashion slugfest.