KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (KT) — Tennessee is in a rebuilding mode. It didn’t matter. The Volunteers were in past form in a stunning 24-7 win over No. 12 Kentucky.
The Wildcats haven’t won in Knoxville since 1984 and the losing streak was extended to 17 games following Saturday’s disastrous setback in their Southeastern Conference finale. It was an all systems failure from start to finish.
“It was not a very good effort,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. “It starts with me and really ends with me. I didn’t have the team prepared and it was not a good enough job by myself. I’ve got to accept that responsibility and get back to work, do some thing differently and try to get a better result.”
Stoops and his players didn’t think the performance was a hangover from last week’s 34-17 loss to No. 6 Georgia. Even senior tight end C.J. Conrad was surprised by Kentucky’s lackluster performance against the Vols.
“I thought we had a good week of preparation,” he said. “I thought we had good practices and good focus. We’re really killing ourselves on offense right now and we need all 11 guys to be on the same page.”
Kentucky (7-3, 5-3) struggled to find a rhythm offensively and failed to reach the end zone in the first half as Tennessee built a 17-0 lead at the break. Kentucky managed just 68 total yards in the first two quarters as the Vols went to the air and amassed 241 yards against the Wildcats, who gave up four pass plays that totaled 25 yards of more.
Tennessee signal caller Jarrett Guarantano’s 39-yard touchdown strike to Marquez Callaway at the buzzer put the exclamation point on his performance in the opening half. Stoops said the play was a “punch in the gut” and a “tough one to come back from.”
“To be honest with you, they went up and made a play,” Kentucky defensive coordinator Matt House said.
Overall, Tennessee outgained Kentucky 412-262. The Wildcats also had three turnovers – two fumbles and an interception. And missed two field goal attempts, Chance Poore’s 51-yard attempt in the first half was wide right and his 30-yard try in the fourth quarter was blocked by the Volunteers.
“They wanted it more,” Kentucky running back Benny Snell said. “I don’t want to say (the team’s issues) are not serious, but just on the team, I just feel like there are guys that do not have that dog mentality and that want it — that hunger and they want it. It’s obvious that Tennessee wanted it more than Kentucky with the outcome that it was.”
Most of it was because of the play of Tennessee’s offensive line. Guarantano threw for 175 yards and a touchdown in the the first two quarters, while Kentucky quarterback Terry Wilson was sacked twice and threw for just 42 yards. Kentucky’s longest offensive play of the opening half went for nine yards. Guarantano threw for 197 yards and two touchdowns.
“They have some skilled wide receivers and they did a nice job,” Stoops said. “They just created some plays and did a nice job. We were just a bit slow with our reactions.”
The second half wasn’t much better for Kentucky as Tennessee dominated on both sides of the ball and made it look easy against the Wildcats who reverted to past form for the first time this season.
The Wildcats’ second straight loss cost Stoops’ squad a chance to notch six league victories for just the second time in school history and dashed hopes for a 10-win regular season. In what began as a week of promise with the Wildcats playing Georgia for a chance to advance to the SEC championship game for the first time in school history ended with Kentucky longing for the success it enjoyed during the first half of the year.
Kentucky, which won five of its first six SEC encounters, lost two in a row to conclude league play and will attempt to build momentum for the postseason with two straight non-conference games, starting with Saturday against Middle Tennessee. Kentucky closes out the regular season at instate rival Louisville on Nov. 24.
“There will be a different message (next week) and that’s on me,” Stoops said. “I’ve got to get them ready to play. It didn’t happen (against Tennessee).”
Gametracker: Middle Tennessee at Kentucky, noon, Saturday. TV/Radio: SEC Network, UK Radio Network.
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.