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Tennessee Offense Explodes in 49-36 Win vs Kentucky

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The most prolific offensive performance of the post-Fulmer era kept hope alive for Tennessee’s first SEC East title in that same span.

NCAA Football: Kentucky at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee ran the ball 41 times for 376 yards, its 9.2 yards per carry out-doing Kentucky’s 8.1 via 443 yards on 55 carries. But while Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson struggled to 12-of-29 for 192 yards, Josh Dobbs did it to the Wildcats one more time: 11-of-18 for 223 yards, and three passing touchdowns to add to his pair on the ground.

The total for the Vol offense: 599 yards on just 59 plays. The yards are the most the Vols have gained against anyone other than Texas A&M (684) this season. But the 59 plays are the fewest the Vols have run against FBS competition this year (after getting 471 yards on just 52 plays against Tennessee Tech last week).

The result: an astounding 10.15 yards per play, the first time in the post-Fulmer era Tennessee has averaged more than 10 yards per play in a single game against an FBS or FCS foe. The previous high was 9.45 against Troy in 2012.

The story in the first half was Tennessee’s defense forcing Kentucky to kick field goals while the Vols did all of the above, carrying over to the opening drive of the third quarter when the Cats’ third field goal cut Tennessee’s lead to 21-16. From there the Vols unleashed their best sequence on a day of many great sequences: 92 yards in five plays to give Tennessee its first two possession lead of the day at 28-16, capped by a flea flicker from Josh Dobbs to Josh Malone for 51 yards. When Kentucky drove to the red zone again, this time they fumbled and Tennessee recovered at their own four yard line, plus 15 more for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the Cats. From the 19 yard line this time it took six plays, capped by a 22-yard Dobbs run then a 17-yard Alvin Kamara run. Tennessee led 35-19, and while both teams had plenty of offensive fireworks left in them, the game was never in doubt again.

Is there cause for alarm in the performance of Tennessee’s defense against the run? I still think much of what’s happening there can be explained by the absence of Danny O’Brien, Shy Tuttle, and Kahlil McKenzie up front and plenty of other less-than-100% bodies everywhere else. Little depth remains to deal with a team getting 84 plays because the Vols were so effective doing things like this:

Meanwhile Tennessee’s offense saw another lineman go down as Dylan Wiesman left the game in the first half, but the Vols shifted Coleman Thomas back to center after he got his first start at right guard, and Jack in-case-of-emergency Jones slid back in at RG. Dobbs took a pair of sacks in the first half, but otherwise you can’t complain about the play of this offensive line today with and without Wiesman on the field.

The records of note today:

  • Josh Dobbs’ 12.4 yards per attempt are a career-best against an FBS foe, just behind his career-best 14.1 last week against FCS Tennessee Tech.
  • Josh Malone’s eighth touchdown of the season gives him the most for any Vol since Justin Hunter’s nine in 2012.
  • Derek Barnett recorded his 30th career sack, moving him just two shy of Reggie White’s all-time Tennessee record.
  • Cam Sutton returned for the first time since the September 17 game against Ohio and tied the school record for career passes defended.

And this probably requires at least one grain of salt given the quality of the defenses in the first group, but here’s Tennessee’s offense this season with and without Jalen Hurd:

With Jalen Hurd (Appalachian State, Virginia Tech, Ohio, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina):

284 carries for 1,041 yards (3.67 yards per carry), 476 total plays for 2,368 yards (4.97 yards per play), 28.0 points per game

Without Jalen Hurd (Texas A&M, Tennessee Tech, Kentucky):

117 carries for 835 yards (7.14 yards per carry), 210 total plays for 1,754 yards (8.35 yards per play), 47.3 points per game

With Missouri and Vanderbilt next, the Vols may have to wait til Atlanta or the bowl game to properly test this theory. But Atlanta remains on the table despite Florida’s win over South Carolina today; the Gators are in Baton Rouge next week, and the Vols need a Florida loss and a clean sweep of Missouri and Vanderbilt to make their way to the Georgia Dome for the first time since 2007.

The offense hummed today, showing the balanced brilliance many were hoping this team had in them. With an eye on LSU and Florida, we’ll see if the Vols can continue to roll when Missouri comes to town next Saturday.