The Vols (5-5, 2-4 SEC) had no problem getting the W – moving to within one win of returning to the postseason for the first time since 2010 – but the way they did it made a statement to the SEC that this program will be tough to beat the rest of this season and downright scary going forward.
“It’s a young football team, but this football team’s different,” said coach Butch Jones. “Their whole mindset’s different. I always gauge it by them showing up to practice early and they’re always late to leave, which tells me they love coming to the Anderson Training Center. We’re building something special here. We’ve got a long way to go, but I’m proud of our players.”
Kentucky (5-6, 2-6) had an impressive 77-yard drive to start the game that led to an early 3-0 lead for the ‘Cats. It was virtually all Tennessee from there. It took the Vols just 1:21 to take the lead after quarterback Joshua Dobbs pitched the ball forward to a motioning Von Pearson, who took it around left end for a 21-yard touchdown.
It quickly began to spiral out of control for the Wildcats. With quarterback Patrick Towles (ankle) temporarily out of the game, backup quarterback Reese Phillips got popped by Justin Coleman, forcing an errant throw that Brian Randolph picked off and took 23 yards for a second quick touchdown.
“It was big,” Jones said of the pick-6. “You know from a momentum standpoint it’s (7-3), and we intercept the ball and finish it and get the ball in the Checkerboards. That was big for us.
“We needed to take the football away and force some balls on the ground, some fumbles. We talk about that with ball disruptions, but again +2 on turnover margin and that’s usually evident of winning and losing. That’s the biggest statistic, along with pass efficiency for us.”
The Vols poured it on from there, continuing the offensive onslaught that has become the norm for Vols since Dobbs took over at quarterback on the third drive of the game against Alabama three weeks ago.
Dobbs would account for the next two touchdowns – a 16-yard strike to Pearson and a 9-yard run he took in himself. A 38-yard field goal from Aaron Medley sandwiched between those two TDs helped the Vols build a commanding 30-3 edge with 4:09 left in the first half.
Dobbs, making just his second start of the season, finished the evening 19-of-27 for 297 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions with 48 yards and an additional touchdown on the ground.
“I feel that as an offense, we definitely played a full game of good football,” Dobbs said. “We were able to take care of the football, move the ball very well tonight. We’re clicking on all cylinders which is very good and we’ll definitely need to keep this up. Just staying on the same page throughout the rest of the season.”
“Josh is very talented young man,” added Jones. “He adds another dynamic, and he does a great job of distributing the football. I believe we didn’t turnover the football, and the quarterback is the caretaker of the football.”
The Vols responded defensively as well after two tough weeks had seen the Vols give up 79 combined point. Kentucky found the end zone just once on a 2-yard run by Towles, and had to settle for three field goals in other situations for a total of 16 points on the night. That’s a big win for UT’s defense against an offense that came into Saturday night’s game scoring an average of nearly 30 points per game.
“We needed that, but we got back to our style of play tonight,” Jones said of his defense that held Kentucky to 262 yards, forced two turnovers and piled up five sacks. “Very proud of these guys and we were able to generate pressure at times with a four-man rush and that helps you.”
With a 33-13 lead at halftime, the Vols made sure Kentucky had no plans for a comeback. Evan Berry returned the opening kickoff of the second half close to midfield and Dobbs hit Jason Croom, who led the Vols with 87 receiving yards, on a quick-hitter that Croom took 52 yards for a score.
Medley, who did miss one field goal and one extra point, added a field goal in the second half and Jalen Hurd, who led the Vols with 24 carries for 118 yards and a touchdown, capped off the scoring with a 4-yard TD run as the Vols mixed in a heavy dose of reserves late in the second half.
“Any win is a good win,” Jones said. We’ll take it every way, shape, form or another. This is the best college football conference in America and it’s a grind week in and week out, so any way you win is very special in this conference. Belief is a powerful thing. Confidence is a powerful thing, and our players have that.”
They also have win No. 5 and one more massive step towards a bowl.