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Tennessee Volunteers at No. 18 Kentucky Wildcats Recap: Josh Heupel earns signature win with 45-42 win over Kentucky

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The Vols are one win away from bowl eligibility.

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Kentucky Wildcats (6-3, 4-3) haven’t beaten the Tennessee Volunteers (5-4, 3-3) in back-to-back years in 43 years and it looks like the program will to have wait at least another two years before having another shot to break the streak.

Hendon Hooker threw for four touchdowns and Alontae Taylor came up with a crucial pick-six in what was a thrilling, back-and-forth win for the Vols. This game represents the first win over a ranked opponent during the Josh Heupel era.


Tennessee received the ball to start the game. It literally took one play for Tennessee to score the game’s first touchdown as JaVonta Payton took a screen pass 75-yards to the house. Chase McGrath’s PAT went through the uprights and the Vols led, 7-0, with 14:49 to go in the first quarter.

Kentucky quickly faced a third down, but was able to convert it via the legs of Will Levis. Kentucky then slowly, but surely marched down the field using the running game for their first touchdown. Kavosiey Smoke led the way with 32-yards and a touchdown on three carries, but the entire team ran it 10 times for 62-yards during the 14-play, 75-yard drive that took 8:37 off the clock and made it a 7-7 game with 6:13 left in the first quarter.

Much like Kentucky’s first drive, the Vols offense quickly found itself in a third down situation. Tennessee’s quick-strike offense came through again as Hooker hit Velus Jones Jr. perfectly in stride for a 72-yard catch-and-run touchdown. McGrath’s PAT went through and the Vols now led, 14-7, with 5:47 left in the first quarter.

Completions of 16- and 11-yards, as well as more effective running, had Kentucky on the move during its second drive of the game. But Tennessee’s defense squared up and held strong on a 3rd and 15 from its own 32 to force a 50-yard field goal attempt. Matt Ruffolo’s kick never had a chance and sailed wide right.

Tennessee’s subsequent drive got off to an excellent start. Hooker hit Jalin Hyatt down the right sideline for a 41-yard completion, which immediately moved the Vols into scoring range. Disaster struck soon afterward when Hooker fumbled the ball away and Kentucky recovered at its own 29, however.

Josh Ali got Kentucky’s third drive of the game started off with a 13-yard reception and then Levis found Wan’Dale Robinson down the right sideline for 31-yards to the UT23. A diving Levis hit pay dirt two plays later as he took the ball and right eight-yards into the end zone to make it a 14-13 game. Ruffolo’s PAT was good and the game was now tied at 14 with 10:23 left in the first half.

A holding penalty on 2nd and 10 turned what would’ve been a 3rd and 5 into a 2nd and 20 and essentially derailed Tennessee’s next drive. The Vols couldn’t overcome it and had to punt the ball away. Paxton Brooks’ punt sailed 52-yards through the air and the Cats’ next drive started at their own 32.

It looked like the Vols defense was about to return the favor in terms of a stop, but Levis was able to pick up a first down on 3rd and 3 with his legs. Tennessee’s defense had antother shot to end the drive on 3rd and 6 a few plays later, but Levis stood tall and found Chauncey Magwood over the middle for a 17-yard gain to give his offense a fresh set of downs inside of Tennessee’s red zone.

Kentucky’s next third down conversion proved to be costly. Levis converted a 3rd and 7 with a 13-yard run that set the Wildcats up with a 1st and goal at the UT3. Levis then found Justin Riggs for the three-yard pass that was needed to give Kentucky a 21-14 lead after Ruffolo’s PAT. Tennessee received the ball with 3:57 to go in the second quarter.

Kentucky was flagged for a horse collar during the return, which added 15-yards to Jones’ 31-yard return and pushed the ball to almost midfield. Tiyon Evans immediately moved the Vols into UK territory on the first play of the drive and things were looking pretty good until J.J. Weaver and De’Andre Square sacked Hooker to force a 3rd and 18. Hooker’s 14-yard pass to Jones created a manageable 4th and 4 and the Vols decided to go for it. Hooker picked up 15-yards on the ground and then found Jacob Warren 18-yards down the seam for his third touchdown pass of the first half. McGrath’s PAT went through the uprights and the game was tied at 21 with 1:14 left in the first half.

Kentucky’s offense came out hot and gained 30 yards on its first three plays of its next drive, but two straight Levis incompletions left the Cats with their own 4th and 4. They couldn’t convert, however, and Tennessee got the ball back at their own 39 with one timeout and :16 left on the clock.

Hooker directed a masterful drive, completing passes of eight-, 13-, and 14-yards and the Vols receivers had the wherewithal to get out of bounds as needed. Tennessee gained 35-yards in 14 seconds, which set McGrath up with a 43-yard field goal attempt. He nailed the kick and the Vols led, 24-21, heading into halftime.

Kentucky received the ball to start the second half and kicked things off with a 12-yard pass to Josh Ali. The Wildcats moved into Tennessee territory a few plays later, but a holding call on Ali pushed them back over onto their side of the 50 and to make things worse, created a 1st and 17 the offense now had to overcome.

The offense did just that and more. Smoke gained six-yards on a first down run and Levis found Robinson for 27-yards down the left sideline and then hit Brendan Bates for 13-yards to set the Cats up with a 1st and goal at the UK8. A six-yard run from Christopher Rodriguez Jr. and a two-yard run from Levis is all it took to get into the end zone and give Kentucky a 28-24 lead with 9:56 to go in the third quarter after Ruffolo’s PAT.

Kentucky tried to prevent a Vols return on the ensuing kickoff, but the short kick didn’t work as Jimmy Holiday returned the kick 33-yards to the Kentucky 49. Kentucky’s lead didn’t last long because Tennessee’s offensive line created a big hole and Jabari Small made a couple guys miss in the open field en route to a 37-yard touchdown run. McGrath’s PAT was good and the Vols now led, 31-28, with 9:11 left in the third quarter.

Two Levis completions moved the Cats past midfield, but Taylor cut the drive short by reading Levis and picking him off. It didn’t stop with the interception, either. Taylor returned the pick 55-yards for the touchdown and the Vols led, 38-28, with 6:23 to go in the third quarter.

But Levis wasn’t phased. He ran for 32-yards on three carries and completed 2-of-3 passes for 27-yards and a touchdown on the subsequent drive. His only incompletion was a perfect pass that was dropped by Izayah Cummings. Regardless, Levis showed he wasn’t going away easily after cutting the Vols’ lead to 38-35 with 1:20 left in the third quarter.

Tennessee gained 35-yards on the first two plays of the next drive, but things quickly fell apart after. Hooker overthrew an open Cedric Tillman on 3rd and 8 and the Vols tried to convert the subsequent 4th and 8, but Hooker was strip-sacked and the Cats took over at their own 43 with a chance to tie or take the lead.

A false start and then a Byron Young sack left the Cats with a 2nd and 20 to start their next drive. A 14-yard gain on 3rd and 20 gave Kentucky a shot to convert a 4th and 7 at the Tennessee 41, but Tim Banks sent the house on a blitz and Young brought Levis down again for the second time.

Tennessee’s drive started at its own 47. Jaylen Wright ran for nine yards on first down and then Hooker found Tillman down the right sideline for a highlight reel-worthy, 38-yard reception that gave the Vols a 1st and goal at the UK6. The duo connected on the next play for a six-yard touchdown. McGrath’s PAT went through and the Vols’ lead was back to 10 points with 11:40 left in the game.

Kentucky continued to fight. Levis connected with Robinson on yet another deep pass to set up shop inside Tennessee territory. Rodriguez then broke off an 18-yard run and Cummings made up for his earlier dropped pass with a 24-yard reception over the middle for a touchdown. Ruffolo’s PAT went through and the Vols’ lead was cut to 45-42 with 9:36 to go after the Cats’ seven-play, 75-yard drive.

Tennessee’s offense faced a 3rd and 10 two plays into its next drive. Hooker was able to bail his crew out with a 25-yard run out to midfield, but faced a 3rd and 4 a couple of plays later. This time it was Wright who picked up the first down with his legs and he came through with a big 21-yard run two players after that.

Tennessee had a 1st goal from the UK9, but Hooker was sacked on second down and then the Vols were called for a false start on third down. All of this created a 3rd and goal from the 15. Hooker was sacked again and then McGrath missed the 35-yard field goal attempt to put the cherry on top of the disastrous drive.

McGrath’s miss gave Kentucky the ball back on its own 18 with 4:42 to either tie or take the lead.

Kentucky’s offense was driving the ball and faced a 3rd and 6 from the Vols’ 48 with around 1:45 remaining. Tyler Baron sacked Levis and the officials missed a facemask call on Baron. Mark Stoops was upset and argued with the official, which resulted in a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct and created a 4th and 24.

It didn’t matter, however, as Levis found Cummings down the right sideline for a 28-yard gain to give the Wildcats a new set of downs at the Tennessee 38.

But three straight incompletions left Levis and Co. with a 4th and 10 that they couldn’t overcome and the Vols would go on to win, 45-42.

The Vols’ (5-4, 3-3) next opponent is the No. 1 Georgia Bulldogs. They will host the top-ranked team in the nation and kickoff is set for 3:30PM EST on Saturday, November 13.

You can check out the final score and stats here.