Tennessee beating the 12th ranked Kentucky Wildcats on Saturday afternoon has brought the Volunteers to 5-5 overall and just one win away from a bowl game. No matter what happens the rest of the way, Tennessee has improved on last year’s mark and is trending upwards. If the Kentucky game is any indication, the Volunteers will end the season on quite the hot streak.
We’re back with another edition of The Flip Side, where we tell you what to worry about and what feel good about after each Tennessee game. Hint: There’s a lot of the latter in this one.
The only reason this game stayed (relatively) competitive in the fourth quarter was Tennessee errors.
With under 12 minutes remaining and leading 24-7, Ty Chandler broke off another big run down the left side. A Kentucky defender then made a great play and somehow managed to strip the ball right out of Chandler’s hands. Kentucky got the ball back in Tennessee territory, but the Volunteers defense responded with a fumble recovery of their own. Under 10 minutes left and Tennessee just avoided a potential momentum swing. Now it’s time to really chew clock.
Until Madre London put a bowtie on an absolute gift to Kentucky. Right on the heels of a 22-yard run from Tim Jordan, London had a gaping hole in front of him, but proceeded to run into one of his linemen and cough up the ball. Once again, Kentucky was unable to do anything with it, but the game could’ve been decided by then.
It also follows a trend throughout the year of Tennessee running backs being unable to secure the ball. Everyone remembers the Florida affair, but it was not just contained to one contest. Tennessee running backs have fumbled six times in 2018 and lost four of them. More frustrating for the Volunteers is where the fumbles occur—they’re almost exclusively on drives where the offense is very close to the goal line or otherwise getting in a rhythm.
On the other hand, it did give us this amazingly incompetent series of drives:
Late Game Defensive Tactics
Defensive aggression is understandably toned down with a big lead in the fourth quarter. Trying to get creative and potentially giving up a huge touchdown would not be smart decision making.
But getting overly-conservative is almost as bad. When a game has more than 10 minutes left in it, your team should stick to what is working and not go full prevent defense. Tennessee’s cornerbacks were playing soft coverage down the stretch and started allowing Kentucky to easily move into Tennessee territory. It worked out for the Volunteers because those drives resulted in a blocked field goal and an interception, but a more capable passer can turn the game around quickly. Someone like Drew Lock of Missouri, for instance.
Some of this probably had to do with starting cornerback Bryce Thompson getting banged up and Tennessee trotting out an already depleted secondary.
The Kentucky win was probably the best game the linebackers have played all season. You could even expand that to the defensive line if you wanted to, but the linebackers in particular had an enormous effect.
Everyone will talk about Darrell Taylor and his four sacks + forced fumble. As they should! Taylor’s pass rushing was incredible on Saturday and showed the explosion that Tennessee had been missing for most of the year. He flashed earlier in the season against Georgia and once again put it together against Kentucky.
What turned it into domination was the play of Darrin Kirkland Jr. and Daniel Bituli. Both players were ferocious in run defense, holding star running back Benny Snell to under 100 yards and zero touchdowns. Kirkland Jr. did not show up much in the stat sheet, but his gap discipline was noticeable. Bituli meanwhile had the most tackles with eight and also contributed two tackles-for-loss.
Tennessee has a tough matchup with Missouri next week, who boasts a high powered passing offense. It will be on the linebackers to pressure Drew Lock and take away the middle of the field.
Offensive Line Rebound
By far the most surprising development from the Kentucky game was the offensive line performing decently. Despite missing two starters and having their worst showing of the year against Charlotte last week, the Volunteers front five made a serious rebound.
Their pass protection allowed Jarrett Guarantano to have another quality outing (197 yards, two touchdowns) and their run blocking was capable. The Volunteers ran for 215 yards and one touchdown on 5.4 yards per carry, the third highest YPC average that Kentucky has allowed this season. A 59-yard rush from Jordan Murphy inflates both of those numbers, but even after removing it, Tennessee still averaged 4.0 yards per carry against an S&P Top-10 defense.
Consider how this offensive line has played in the past three weeks. The Charlotte game is starting to look like an outlier, since Tennessee’s rushing attack is finally becoming a threat. It will not win them games by itself—but it relieves some of the pressure off Guarantano and the passing game.
How many first year head coaches can show recruits two victories over Top-25 teams? The recruiting pitch for Jeremy Pruitt and staff was never focused on the current team of course, since it is not their players. But more than a few recruits like to see improvement from a team they are considering.
It is hard to dispute that Tennessee fits this bill. The offense looks more explosive, the defense is playing to its strengths, and the team is now on the cusp of a bowl game. Everything is shaping up for Tennessee to finish very strong on the recruiting trail.
We will have a more in-depth breakdown later this week, as Tennessee’s board has expanded and changed since the last time we wrote about it.