Tennessee vs Kentucky: Lessons Learned
For the Tennessee Volunteers, it seems like every week brings talk of another streak that the team in Orange is trying to break. However, on Saturday, the Vols had a prominent streak on the line that they wanted to preserve. The Vols hadn’t lost to the Kentucky Wildcats in Neyland Stadium since 1984. Kentucky, a team that had already broken a significant streak of their own earlier this season with a win in the Swamp, came in as the number eleven team in the country, the favorite, and poised to finally leave Knoxville with a win. The only problem was that someone forgot to get the memo to Jeremy Pruitt and his Volunteers that they were supposed to lose. Perhaps it isn’t stunning that the Vols pulled the upset on Kentucky, but the way that they managed it was rather eye opening. We looked at some keys to the game yesterday, and some learning opportunities Tennessee had after a gutting loss at South Carolina a couple of weeks ago, and those were factors in Tennessee’s convincing win.
First, it is time to give credit where credit is due. The biggest key to the game coming into yesterday’s contest with the Wildcats was Tennessee’s offensive line. Kentucky had one of the stingiest defenses in the country and the SEC’s leading sack artist in defensive end Josh Allen. The Vols had an offensive line that had been the weak link on the team for most of the season, a unit down several of their best players, and a group that was coming off one of the worst performances for a Tennessee line in the memory of even long-time fans. A lot of responsibility for the Vols’ struggles had fairly been laid at the feet of this offensive line group, and it didn’t look good for them or Vol backs going into the game with Big Blue. So, of course, Tennessee came out and ran for over 200 yards while providing the best protection Jarrett Guarantano has gotten all season long. Isn’t college football great?
Tennessee’s offensive line played the best game that they have put together as individuals and as a unit, by far, against the Wildcats. Some of the same issues that have plagued the Vols up front still showed up, giving up some sacks, tackles for loss, and big hits on Guarantano, but the line played better. Much better. Marcus Tatum, pressed into the starting lineup due to injuries, played the best game of his Tennessee career, by far. He drew the difficult assignment of trying to neutralize the dynamic Allen, and while Allen made some plays, Tatum won that matchup more than he lost it. Tennessee also got a very solid effort from Right Tackle Drew Richmond. While Richmond drew the ire of Coach Pruitt after an exchange in the endzone when the Vols went up 10-0 on a Tim Jordan touchdown run, it appeared to be more of Pruitt trying to keep Richmond from letting his emotions get the best of him and cost the team. That fire and edge from Richmond is something that the Vols have wanted out of the Memphis product and the line as a whole for a while now, and it appeared Pruitt was willing to do what it took to direct it properly as long as it showed up. The biggest improvement for the Tennessee line came on the interior, though. Jahmir Johnson has been solid for the Vols since arriving on campus from the JUCO ranks and having Johnson healthy was a boon for this Tennessee group up front. Nathan Niehaus, Ryan Johnson, Jerome Carvin, and K’Rojhn Calbert all contributed with Johnson on the interior of the Tennessee line. A week after being handled by Charlotte, these guys stepped up and created some good seams for Volunteer running backs. Ryan Johnson had a particularly solid effort from his center position. The Vols were far from dominant up front but coming off a week where they struggled to get any blocks on the guys across from them, they turned in their best performance of the year, blocking a stout Kentucky defense very well. These guys have taken a lot of blame this season, and their vastly improved performance is possibly the biggest reason that the Vols have their second win of the season over a ranked, SEC opponent.
Not to be outdone, the Tennessee defense rose to the challenge of squaring off with one of the nation’s best rushing attacks, spearheaded by the Cats’ work horse running back Benny Snell. Kentucky goes as Snell goes, and for only the second time all season, the Vols held the talented runner below one hundred yards on the ground. Tennessee had a good scheme for containing Snell, and it relied heavily on their pair of true freshman corners, Alontae Taylor and Bryce Thompson, holding up in a lot of one-on-one man coverage situations. Taylor and Thompson rose to the occasion yet again this season, covering Wildcat receivers tightly all game. This allowed the Vol front to zero in on containing Snell, which is exactly what they did. The Tennessee linebackers turned in a good group effort, taking advantage of the penetration that the Vol defensive line was able to generate. For the good efforts turned in by the likes of Shy Tuttle, Daniel Bituli, Darrin Kirkland, Will Ignot, and the two-interception performance Marquill Osborne turned in, the Vol defender that stole the show was undoubtedly Darrel Taylor.
The redshirt junior wreaked absolute havoc on the Kentucky offense, and acquainted himself with Wildcat quarterback Terry Wilson on four separate occasions, once stripping and recovering the ball from the Cat signal caller. Taylor came perilously close to the school record for sacks in a single game, which stands at the four and a half that Corey Miller managed, also against the Wildcats. As it stands, Taylor will have to settle for seeing his name tied for second in the Volunteer Record Books…. Right next to Reggie White. That effort has earned Taylor National Defensive Player of the Week honors, and rightfully so. When Taylor is healthy, he has shown flashes of what he can be, turning in three sacks at Georgia earlier this season. If Taylor can continue this hot streak and manage to get home on opposing quarterbacks more consistently, he has a real shot at a double-digit sack campaign this season and can prove to be the catalyst to push the Volunteer defense to the next level as they grow under Pruitt.
In our preview article, we talked about the fact that the Vols had some chances to make plays against Kentucky with skill players, particularly at the receiver position. While Tennessee took advantage of the line’s performance by gashing Kentucky with Ty Chandler and Tim Jordan multiple times in the game, they also found some chunk plays passing the ball. Big catches came from Jordan, Dominick Wood-Anderson, who appears to be carving out a larger role in the offense, and Marquez Callaway. None were bigger than the Hail Mary to close the first half that Callaway came down with to put the Vols up 17-0 before the intermission. Callaway cut in front of the group clustered near the backline of the endzone, went up, cleanly ripped the ball from a Kentucky defensive back that had a hand on it, and scored a huge touchdown. Guarantano stepped away from Allen, a legitimate All-American candidate for the Cats, to get the pass off to Callaway. The Volunteer quarterback would add another touchdown pass off a pretty play action sweep near the goal line that went to a wide-open Wood-Anderson. Turning in yet another two touchdown, interception free, performance, Guarantano set the school record for most passes attempted without an interception, now at one hundred forty-six and counting. Tennessee looked efficient for the most part against Kentucky, and that is the adjective that describes the offense when they are at their best. Some late fumbles hurt cost the Vols opportunities at further points, but the defense bailed them out with a blocked field goal by Shy Tuttle and the aforementioned strip, recovery, sack by Taylor.
The Hail Mary before the half was not only a good play by the offense, showing their growth, it shows the growth of the coaching staff as well. After the South Carolina game, a contest that the Vols lost close, we talked about how Tennessee passed up an opportunity to get points before the close of the first half. Tennessee had the ball late in the half with timeouts. On a handoff to Chandler, the speedy sophomore gashed the Gamecocks for a good gain, giving the Vols first and ten near their own forty yard-line. Rather than trusting the efficient Guarantano, his dynamic receivers, and strong legged kicker, Pruitt elected to take a knee rather than pushing to extend the lead. That decision wound up biting the Vols, as points even a field goal, before the half could have led to the Vols at least getting a shot at overtime against Carolina rather than losing the game. That drive was something we highlighted as a potential learning opportunity for Pruitt as head coach. Fast forward two weeks, and the Vols find themselves in almost exactly the same situation against Kentucky. This time, after Chandler gashed the Wildcats to give the offense good field position, Pruitt elected to push for points. He used his timeouts well and after a long catch by Callaway, the Vols were in position to high-low the Cats. A ten-yard completion and a quick timeout would put the Vols firmly in Cimaglia field goal range, or they could opt to take a shot for the endzone with their big armed quarterback and great jump ball receivers. The Vols elected to take a crack at the latter, and it paid off with the superb grab by Callaway. Going up 17-0 felt, even at the half, like a back breaker for Kentucky, and though the Cats fought the rest of the game, the lead just felt insurmountable. This shows Pruitt identifying his own mistakes, growing from them, and resulting in a different outcome for his team. That growth, and the win that it helped to spark, should make Tennessee fans feel good about their coach.
After the Carolina game, Tennessee had a lot of position groups that had tough questions to answer. The coaching staff had to look in the mirror and identify how they could improve. The entire team had to stomach a bitter pill of trying to improve after knowing they let a game get away that they should have won. Today, Tennessee is celebrating a win over the number eleven team in the country, defending home turf, and extending an impressive home winning streak, all because when faced with similar situations as they folded under in Columbia, they rose to the occasion. The defense found their answers in a solid group effort, a game wrecking performance from Taylor, Osborne’s multiple interceptions in relief of the injured Thompson, and a huge field goal block from Shy Tuttle when the Cats tried to claw back into it. The offense had a line that took last week personally and played like a unit that was determined to put something on tape to be proud of. Guarantano, the backs, and receivers took full advantage of the big guys playing well to gash a very good Kentucky defense repeatedly. The coaching staff could have been satisfied with what they had, but instead they pushed for more, coached and played to win. The result? The best effort the Vols have put together in a full game this season, a top fifteen upset, and a team that looks to be growing. It appears that those hard lessons were learned, and if that is the case, it could just lead to a post season trip for these Vols.