LEXINGTON, Ken. – A bad start led to a great finish for Tennessee as they were able to pull away from Kentucky and ultimately bury the Wildcats in Lexington by the final score of 52-21. Tennessee nearly scored in every way possible on their way to 52 points, but the defensive touchdown that eluded them on this night was exactly what Kentucky used to jump on the scoreboard first in a strange but entertaining game in Commonwealth Stadium.
The Vols and Wildcats each now sit at 4-4 on the season, but once again look like two teams heading in opposite directions entering the home-stretch of the season. Tennessee will now set their eyes towards to South Carolina Gamecocks and a 4:00pm kickoff in Neyland Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
Here are five key takeaways from tonight’s win in the Bluegrass State:
Early Adversity: I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a crazier start to a football game than the one tonight in Lexington…Oh, wait, I cover Tennessee. Let’s try that again.
For the second time in three games, Tennessee botched a great early drive by fumbling to their opponent and having the fumble returned for a touchdown. Leonard Floyd returned a Jalen Hurd fumble 96 yards for Georgia’s first score on October 10th, and, tonight, Kentucky’s Cory Johnson recovered a Joshua Dobbs fumble on Tennessee’s opening drive and returned it 77 yards to give Kentucky an early 7-0 lead.
Much like the Georgia game earlier in the month, Tennessee didn’t flinch at the early setback. Dobbs and the offense answered with a 28-yard touchdown run later in the quarter and never looked back, cruising to a comfortable win that showcased all of the strengths of this team. Maybe Tennessee needs to go down on a crazy fumble return in SEC games more often?
Offense Clicks: After the early turnover, Tennessee offense looked incredibly crisp. The Vols racked up 482 yards of total offense, including 249 yards on the ground, and big plays were everywhere. Alvin Kamara had a 63-yard run and Joshua Dobbs added a 28-yarder of his own. Jalen Hurd hauled in a 37-yard touchdown pass that saw him slice through Kentucky’s defense and Josh Malone went long for a 75-yard touchdown that answered Kentucky’s first offensive touchdown and gave the Vols a lead they would not surrender again.
In breaking down film of Kentucky this week, it was obvious that Tennessee would have multiple opportunities at big plays tonight, but credit the players and coaches for executing. Road games in the SEC are never easy, and with tonight’s game being on Halloween, there was an early vibe that Kentucky might be in for “one of those nights.” But Tennessee’s players responded and the offense was a big factor in tonight’s win.
Special Teams: They’re BACK! I was critical of Tennessee’s special teams performance against Alabama last week, but they stole the show tonight. Aaron Medley nailed his only attempt of the night – a 44-yarder in a swirling wind and the game still close – and Trevor Daniel put his only meaningful punt of the night down inside the 10-yard line early in the first quarter.
But Evan Berry and Cam Sutton were the real heroes on this night. On back-to-back special teams plays, each showed their speed and athleticism by scoring return-touchdowns.
With 8:19 left in the third quarter, Evan Berry answered Kentucky’s third and final score of the night with a 100-yard return that ended any hope that Big Blue Nation had of keeping tonight’s contest competitive. Then, after forcing a punt on Kentucky’s next possession, Cam Sutton dodged his way through Kentucky’s coverage unit for an 84-yard touchdown return of his own.
Tennessee probably didn’t need all of these great plays on special to get the win tonight – in fact, mathematically, they didn’t need any of them – but it certainly made things go much more smoothly and allowed Vol fans to breathe a little easier.
RocketDobbs Returns: There was a lot to like about tonight’s game, but Joshua Dobbs gets my MVP Award tonight. On the night, Dobbs went 16-of-26 for 233 yards and two touchdowns, while also rushing 7 times for 51 yards and an additional two scores. He did have two turnovers, but it’s hard to blame him for either of them after reviewing the plays.
Dobbs finished with 284 yards of total offense and four touchdowns tonight, and could have likely had much more than that if not for the great play of his teammates that took some of the pressure off of him to make those great plays. We said it after the game against Georgia, but it truly appears that Mike DeBord and Joshua Dobbs are starting to figure each other out. This, in my opinion, should mean great things are ahead for the rest of this season and into 2016.
Defense Cleans It Up: I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t mention how great of a job that John Jancek’s entire crew did in tonight’s game. In the first quarter – before Tennessee’s offense really got things going – it was the Volunteer defense that carried this team. At the end of the first quarter, Tennessee had only allowed Kentucky to gain two (yes, 2.0) yards on 11 plays and the game was tied 7-7.
Now, the defense gave up plays later in the game when things got out of hand, but their fantastic start kept Kentucky from stealing any more momentum and confidence after that early fumble-return touchdown.
On the night, Jancek’s crew would record two sacks (both by Derek Barnett), two turnovers, five tackles-for-loss, five quarterback-hurries and five pass breakups. They limited an explosive Kentucky offense by adjusting when they needed to and flying to the football all night long. It’s been an up-and-down season for the defense to this point, but they turned in a really nice performance tonight.
— Rocky Top Insider (@rockytopinsider) November 1, 2015