The stage was set in Lexington for the program to pick up a big win against a program they have historically struggled with and that is putting it lightly. In front of 56,760 on a cold November night, it was a great atmosphere and the Wildcats got off to their best start of the season.
However, the momentum disappeared after the first quarter and thanks to a quarterback change, Tennessee put together two quick scoring drives out of the half. Unfortunately, Kentucky could never recover. It’s back to the drawing board as the Wildcats will finish under .500 in SEC play for the first time since 2015. This one is going to be tough to swallow.
Kentucky rolled up 327 yards (302 rushing, 25 passing) on 71 plays and this was their most snaps run since September. The Wildcats controlled the football for over 41 minutes, but that still wasn’t enough to get the job done. The 4.6 yards per play average is just not enough to win a football game. While the Wildcats efficiently moved the ball (21 first downs, 7 of 15 on third down) they had trouble finishing the drives and creating explosive plays.
For the first time this season, Kentucky scored on their first possession going on a beautiful 17-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that ate up over 10 minutes. It gave the Wildcats some big momentum to start the night. After a three-and-out and blocked punt forced by the defense, the Wildcats cashed in again with Kavosiey Smoke finally showing that he broke through that freshman wall.
On their first two drives, Kentucky had two scoring opportunities and cashed in with two touchdowns. However, it was all downhill in the final 47 minutes of the game.
The final two possessions of the half, Kentucky got the ball to the Tennessee 40 but recorded zero points. Lynn Bowden Jr.’s first interception of the season came at a very bad time and the coaching staff decided to not be aggressive on the final possession of the half. On what could have been a blowout, Kentucky allowed Tennessee to hang around.
Kentucky’s final three possessions of the game would all reach the Tennessee 40 but zero ended with points. The stop at the end of the game is the one everyone will remember, but each possession is just as important.
The Wildcats had seven scoring opportunities and came away with just 13 points. In what could have been a blowout, Kentucky turned into a loss.
For the third time under Eddie Gran, Kentucky ran for at least 280 yards against Tennessee but this time it was a little different. The Vols were able to limit Kentucky to under five yards per carry while in the last two meetings the Wildcats put up over eight yards per rush. That is production a defense can deal with when an offense rushes the ball 64 times in a football game. They did it by slowing down Lynn Bowden, Jr.
The junior was held to just 114 yards on 26 carries and put up a season low 4.4 yards per carry. Bowden had just one run over 20 yards and was swarmed by Tennessee’s defense. Due to all of this attention, UK’s two freshmen running backs were able to take advantage.
Christopher Rodriguez, Jr. and Kavosiey Smoke combined to rush for 139 yards on 20 carries and put up just under seven yards per attempt. This was the production this ground attack was desperately missing and it was good to see both young players breakthrough after each has dealt with adversity earlier in the season. However, the veteran of the group had another rough night.
A.J. Rose leads the team in rush attempts (122) by a good margin but is only putting up 4.5 yards per carry. Add that in with his inability to produce chunk plays and that makes your running game really inefficient. Rose found one big run (collected 26 yards on a draw) but other than that he had 18 yards on his 15 other carries. That is just not good enough and is very similar to what we’ve seen him produce in other games this season. I would expect a full on committee approach at running back moving forward.
In their first game playing with decent weather since the home win against Arkansas, we were hoping to see some more from the UK pass attack. That did not come as the Wildcats attempted just seven throws and took two sacks. No Bryce Oliver or Ahmad Wagner in the lineup certainly hurt and Lynn Bowden had Justin Rigg open on his only interception of the night. However, this is kind of expected when you have a wide receiver playing quarterback.
Kentucky allowed 296 yards (83 rushing, 213 passing) on 46 snaps. The Vols put up 6.4 yards per play and this was the highest total allowed by the defense since the road loss to Mississippi State. After a very solid first thirty minutes, the game completely changed when Jarrett Guarantano entered the lineup.
The Vols started true freshman Brian Maurer for the first time in three games and Kentucky looked very comfortable against the former three-star recruit. He completed just 7 of 16 throws in the first half with 6.1 yards per attempt average as the teams headed into the locker room with Kentucky holding a 10-point lead. Jeremy Pruitt decided to make a change and Guarantano was the reason they won the game.
The New Jersey native led the Vols on two long scoring drives in their first two third quarter possessions to turn a 13-3 deficit into a 17-13 lead. In the half, the redshirt junior completed 7 0f 8 passes, put up 14.4 yards per attempt, and tossed for two scores. He was the difference in the ballgame and Kentucky’s highly ranked pass defense was roasted.
Tennessee entered the night having the worst rushing attack in the SEC and Kentucky did a good job in making sure that held serve. The Vols ran for just 83 yards and did not have a carry that went for over 17. Tennessee put up four yards per carry in 21 attempts, but their backs had just 37 yards on 11 carries. Jarrett Guarantano led the team with 30 yards on six carries and his last run of the night iced the game for Tennessee.
A major area we thought UK could have an advantage in would be rushing the passer. The Vols have an anemic ground game that Kentucky was able to stop. Add that in with quarterbacks that want to be stationary in the pocket and that should present some good opportunities for UK’s pass rush. That ended up not being the case.
Due to the weapons the Vols have at wideout, Kentucky decided to play coverage most of the night and try to rush with four. Kentucky’s front wasn’t up to the challenge. Edge rushers Joshua Paschal, Boogie Watson and Jordan Wright were never a factor in the game as the two true freshman five-stars at tackle played outstanding football. Calvin Taylor, Jr. was able to record his sixth sack and third forced fumble of the season to give the pass rush its only bright spot of the night.
Kentucky’s defense was able to create one takeaway in the fourth quarter that setup the offense’s final drive, but for the most part this group is struggling to produce takeaways. Brad White’s unit hasn’t come away with an interception since the Mississippi State loss. Also the red zone offense that had a touchdown rate ranked 126th entering the game was able to get two touchdowns in three possessions on Saturday. Kentucky’s defense held the Vols to 17 points, but did not play to the level the team needed them at.
Thanks to the offense being able to consistently move the football all night, Max Duffy really was not needed. The potential All-American punted just three times and one occurred at the Tennessee 40 when UK probably should have went for it on fourth-and-short. However, he bombed another one 50-plus yards and gave Kentucky an advantage in net yards punting.
The kicking game continues to be an issue and this time it was Chance Poore who missed an extra point. It was the third miss in two games and all have occurred in the end zone right in front of the student section. This cannot happen and the miss forced UK to go for six instead of having the option for three at the end. The field goal ineptitude plays a big factor in the decision making when UK crosses into Tennessee territory.
Kentucky recorded its first blocked kick of the year and it was the second blocked punt of Joshua Paschal’s career.
For a defense struggling to produce takeaways, this acts as a turnover and gave UK a huge momentum swing to start the ballgame.
After everything Kentucky had been through this season, the table was set to have a huge month of November following the upset win over Missouri. The Wildcats were going to be favorites in their final four games and it was very conceivable that this team could get to 8-4. However, it was going to take some close wins and this team let one slip through their fingers on Saturday.
Tennessee defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley did a great job game planning for UK’s unique offense. The Vols were locked in on stopping the quarterback run game and by doing that it opened some doors for other players. Christopher Rodriguez, Jr. and Kavosiey Smoke came up big, but A.J. Rose was woefully inefficient. Add that in with no passing game and zero plays over 30-plus yards allowed and it was the perfect recipe to stop this offense.
On the other side, we saw that Kentucky’s pass defense is not as good as we thought. The coaching staff still prefers to play with coverage more times than not and that puts a lot of pressure on their four guys rushing the passer. They were unable to create an organic pass rush and that opened up things for a hot Jarrett Guarantano. Due to the limited number of possessions, any bad series is magnified with the way Kentucky plays and the two out of half completely swung the football game in the blink of an eye.
This loss really, really stings and it is going to be hard for Kentucky to get off the mat. In their previous heartbreaking home loss to Florida, the Wildcats responded by playing their two worst games of the season in road losses to Mississippi State and South Carolina. That cannot happen this time around.
Tennessee’s defense has played at a top 20-25 level in recent weeks and they showed that on Saturday. But moving forward, Kentucky will be facing three of the worst defenses they have seen this season. Things that were eliminated by Tennessee will be open in the next few weeks and this ground game should get back to producing chunk plays.
The same can be said for the defense until the final game against Louisville. The pass defense woes must be fixed and the Wildcats really need to find a way to force some turnovers in the last 12 quarters of the season. This one is going to sting, but there is still a really good chance to end this season on a high note. However, avoiding the hangover is going to be real challenge on the road.
On to Vanderbilt.