This was about as perfect of a night for Tennessee as they could have hoped for. The Vols were able to start fast and never let up until the game was well in hand as they cruised to a 50-16 win over a Kentucky team that was playing for bowl eligibility. The Vols will now have their chance to cement a bowl appearance themselves next week when the Missouri Tigers travel to Knoxville.
There were very few negatives to take away from such a positive performance for Tennessee in this game, so here’s a look at five things that really stood out as reasons why the Vols were able to dominate from start to finish in what was, perhaps, their best performance of the season:
#AstroDobbs: In a game where Tennessee never needed a game-winning drive and any late heroics were far from necessary, Joshua Dobbs turned in a near-flawless performance. There were many who expected the sophomore quarterback to come back down to earth (pun intended) after the performance he turned in against South Carolina two weeks ago, but he may have actually turned in his most complete game to date against Kentucky. He finished the game 19-of-27 for 297 yards and 3 touchdowns, and added another 48 rushing yards and a score on 10 carries. The craziest thing about this stat line is how much better it could have been, as several of Dobbs’ eight incompletions came when he missed open receivers for potential big plays. Dobbs completed passes to nine different receivers in this game and did an outstanding job of managing the offense and using his feet to move the chains when he needed to. You hate to risk hyping any player too much, but what Dobbs has been able to accomplish in three games has been remarkable. On the season, Dobbs has completed 61-of-99 passes (61.6%) for 790 yards, seven touchdowns and only two interceptions. He also has 53 rushing attempts for 289 yards and an additional four touchdowns.
Run Hurd: I don’t remember the last time that Tennessee had a running back that ran as hard as Jalen Hurd does on every single play. Every yard that Hurd got in this game was hard-earned and the true freshmen actually seemed to get better as the game wore on. Hurd finished with 118 yards on 24 carries – none of which came after the end of the third quarter – but it wasn’t the final line that made Hurd’s night so impressive, it was the way he fought for his yards all night long. Hurd’s longest run of the night was only 14 yards, so it wasn’t as if he hit a big one that skewed his average. He broke tackles, he moved piles, he protected the football and he fought for the end zone when he got close enough to get in. At this point, I think it’s safe to say that Jalen Hurd is a star in the making.
Defense returns: After really struggling in their two previous games, John Jancek’s group came out focused tonight and really did well to limit a potent Kentucky offense. They piled up nine tackles for loss, five sacks, two interceptions and were able to hold Kentucky to only 262 total yards. They never let Patrick Towles get into a rhythm and even helped the offense out a little bit with a touchdown of their own when Brian Randolph intercepted a deflected Reese Phillips pass in the first quarter and returned it 23 yards for the score. They did an excellent job against Kentucky’s running attack – no Kentucky rusher with more than two carries averaged over 2.8 yards per carry – and didn’t allow a passing touchdown for the first time since facing UTC over a month ago. It wasn’t a perfect performance, but this team used the bye week to get better and it showed against the Wildcats.
Breaking Barnett: In case you haven’t heard, Derek Barnett is very good at the game of American tackle football. The true freshman defensive end added another seven tackles, two sacks and four tackles for loss to his season total against the Wildcats. He now sits at nine sacks and 18 tackles for loss on the season, which is more than either South Carolina’s Jadaveon Clowney or Ole Miss’ Robert Nkemdiche had during their freshmen seasons. Derek Barnett currently trails Texas A&M freshman Myles Garrett for the all time record for sacks by a true freshman in the SEC, but, perhaps, not for long. Garrett currently sits at 11 sacks in 2014, but missed this weekend’s game against Missouri with an injury. With Missouri next week and the season finale in his hometown against Vanderbilt, don’t write off Barnett as making that record his own before season’s end.
Third down for what? It’s back: After struggling mightily on third down against Alabama and South Carolina, the Tennessee defense got back on track tonight against the Wildcats. The Vols allowed Kentucky to convert just 3-of-14 attempts on third down, and no quarter featured more than one conversion for the Cats in this game. Tennessee forced the Kentucky offense to go three-and-out six times on the night and never let Kentucky’s offense find any rhythm or consistency as the game wore on. Four of Tennessee’s five sacks and one of their two interceptions cam on third down, as the Vols really appeared to turn up the heat on Patrick Towles when the ‘3’ was on the sticks. They’ll need to carry their momentum into next week’s game against Missouri to help the Vols reach bowl eligibility with another game left to play, but tonight they looked like the Tennessee defense that we saw in the first half of the season.