I’m sure a lot of folks didn’t think the No. 18 Tennessee Volunteers (2-2) would lose to the Kentucky Wildcats (2-2) for the first time in Neyland Stadium since 1984 today, but alas, here we are.
Kentucky’s first drive did not go in favor of the Wildcats. Kivon Bennett tackled Asim Rose behind the line of scrimmage on second down, which set up a 3rd and long. Henry To’o To’o then dropped Terry Wilson for a four-yard sack and Kentucky was held to a three-and-out.
The Vols were able to move the ball on their first drive of the game. Jarrett Guarantano was able to move his team down to the UK30, but the Wildcat defense toughened up and returned the favor with a third down sack of their own. Jamar Watson destroyed Darnell Wright off the right side and took Guarantano down, ending the drive. The sack killed any chance at a field goal attempt and the Vols had to punt the ball away.
A very well-schemed play helped the Wildcats convert a crucial third down as they began to drive down the field, but Bryce Thompson was able to strip the ball from Josh Ali and the Vols began their drive at the UK45.
Another failed third down attempt led to Tennessee’s ninth fourth down conversion attempt on the year. Guarantano found Johnson on a 4th and 3 for a four-yard gain, but the fifth-year quarterback fumbled the ball two plays later and the Wildcats recovered on their own 26-yard line.
Tennessee’s defense was able to provide damage control with the help of a questionable holding call on Drake Jackson, Kentucky’s center. The call forced the Cats into a 3rd and long, which subsequently led to a punt.
The first points of the game came on this drive when Guarantano tried to hit Cedric Tillman on an out route along the right sideline. LSU transfer Kelvin Jospeh stepped right in front of the pass and took it to the house for a 41-yard touchdown return. Matt Ruffolo drilled the PAT and Kentucky led, 7-0, with 12:47 to go in the first half.
Jarrett Guaranta-OHNO! The Kelvin Joseph pick six gives Kentucky the lead! #UKvsTENN pic.twitter.com/lqkxGcmGNr— CFB Pylon (@TheCFBPylon) October 17, 2020
But Guarantano showed some resolve on the next drive and had the Vols in scoring position within a few plays. It all came crashing down, however, when he missed linebacker Jamin Davis sitting right in front of the intended target in Jalin Hyatt. Davis picked off the pass and ran this one back 75-yards for another touchdown to put the Cats up, 14-0, with 10:33 left in the first half.
Kentucky’s Jamin Davis with the interception as Kentucky takes a two touchdown lead in Knoxville pic.twitter.com/1tgTQSwBj3— Cats Coverage (@CatsCoverage_) October 17, 2020
At this point, the Vols had 117 total yards compared to the Wildcats’ 126 interception return yards, so Jeremy Pruitt decided to bench Guarantano and bring in J.T. Shrout. Nothing changed, however, as he threw an interception on his first pass of the game. Tyrell Ajian came up with the turnover and Kentucky took over at the UT37.
Kentucky’s Tyrell Ajian with Kentucky’s THIRD interception of the day.pic.twitter.com/iHkVk2whRh— Cats Coverage (@CatsCoverage_) October 17, 2020
It looked the Cats were going to put another touchdown on the board, but tight end Keaton Upshaw dropped a pass in the end zone that should’ve been caught. Kentucky still made the 30-yard field goal though and increased its lead to 17-0 with 6:18 left in the first half.
Tennessee found itself in another fourth down situation at its own 34 after Eric Gray couldn’t pick up the five yards needed on 3rd and 5. The Vols needed points, so they decided to hand it off to Ty Chandler on 4th and 1. Chandler barely got the first down, but the decision to go for it paid off big time as Chandler punched it in from four yards out for the Vols’ first touchdown of the game. Brent Cimaglia hit the PAT to cut Kentucky’s lead to 17-7, with 1:36 to go in the first half.
Ty Chandler pounds it in— (@Mr_OSaile) October 17, 2020
TOUCHDOWN TENNESSEE pic.twitter.com/kH1pP7bFTz
Kentucky couldn’t do anything with the ball thanks to a stout UT defense, but the Vols couldn’t do anything after that, either. Tennessee would begin the half with the ball, hoping to cut even more into UK’s lead.
The defense had done its job so far. Kentucky had just four first downs compared to Tennessee’s 13 and had just 75 total yards on 25 plays. Tennessee had 203 total yards of offense, 120 of those coming on the ground, but the most impressive stat was that Tennessee held Kentucky to just 28 yards on the ground. The Cats led the SEC with 212 rush yards per game coming into the contest. It was obvious how much weight the two pick-sixes held at the half.
It was clear that if the Vols (or Guarantano) could stop the mistakes, then there was a great shot they could come back and win the game.
The Vols’ opening drive of the second half was a failure as another missed third down conversion opportunity led to a three-and-out and a punt. Kentucky responded with its best drive of the game (to this point), which was an 11-play, 76-yard drive that took 5:49 off the clock and ended with a nice pass from Wilson to Allen Dailey for a touchdown. Ruffolo’s third PAT went through the uprights and Kentucky now led, 24-7, with 7:24 left in the third quarter.
A sack killed Tennessee’s next drive and matters became worse when Wanya Morris appeared to injure himself on the play. The Wildcats were able to drive down the field on their next possession, but Tennessee held firm in the red zone to force the field goal attempt. Ruffolo’s 27-yard kick was good and the Cats now led, 27-7, with 1:02 left in the third quarter.
The Vols are now (2-2) on the season as they travel to Tuscaloosa to take on the Alabama Crimson Tide (3-0) next Saturday, October 24. Kickoff is currently set for 3:30PM EST.