LEXINGTON, Ken. – Tennessee head coach Butch Jones speaks of the importance of explosive plays on a regular basis.
The Vols (4-4, 2-3) took that to heart on Saturday night against Kentucky. Tennessee had huge plays in all three phases of the game, put up some historic numbers and rolled to a a comfortable 52-21 win in Lexington over Kentucky (4-4, 2-4 SEC).
“Big plays,” Butch Jones said when discussing the victory on Saturday evening. “We finally were able to manufacture some big plays really in all three phases which really helped us.”
Ironically, it was a big play that went the other direction that put the Vols down early and caused for some early nervous moments for Tennessee – a team that was favored by more than 10 points by kickoff time, but also had just one SEC win on the year after a series of fourth-quarter defeats so far in 2015.
Kentucky’s Marcus McWilson came on a blitz around the left side of UT’s line, knocked the ball out of Joshua Dobbs’ hand and defensive tackle Cory Johnson scooped it up and took it 77 yards in the other direction to give UK the lead at the 8:23 mark of the first quarter. Dobbs was then able to tie it up with a 28-yard touchdown run of his own later in the first quarter. But it wasn’t until Kentucky took a 14-10 lead at the 5:39 mark of the second quarter that the Vols really started raining big plays on a team that has only defeated UT one time since 1984.
Dobbs connected with receiver Josh Malone, who finished the game with four catches for 103 yards, on the first play of the next drive for a 75-yard touchdown that quickly gave UT the lead back at 17-14. It was both the longest pass of Dobbs’ career and the longest catch for Malone.
“We needed that from the wide receiver corp,” Jones said.
“It was a shot play,” added Dobbs, who finished the game 16-of-26 for 233 yards, two passing touchdowns, one INT and added 51 yards and two scores on the ground. “We got pressure to the boundary and Jalen (Hurd) did a great job picking it up and Malone went over the top, and I was able to put the ball in the right location and that really helped. It was a big spark play. Kentucky had just gone down and scored a touchdown so having an answer and being able to do it in that fashion was good.”
It was also a shot in the arm for the Vols. A fired-up defense got the ball back quickly, allowing UT another opportunity to add points before halftime. Alvin Kamara ripped off a 63-yard scamper down the left sideline on UT’s final drive of the first half. Dobbs did the rest two plays later – taking it around right end for a score to give UT a 24-14 edge at the half.
The big-play theme carried into the second half for the Vols. Dobbs found running back Jalen Hurd on a 37-yard screen pass for a touchdown on a play aided by a block from center Coleman Thomas, who got out in the right flat, peeled back and took two UK defenders out of the play to help spring Hurd free.
The defense then set Hurd up for another score. Freshman linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. picked off a pass from Patrick Towles in Kentucky territory and ran it back 26 yards inside the 5-yard line. Hurd powered it in from four yards out the next play to give the Vols even more of a commanding edge of 38-14 at the 8:34 mark of the third quarter.
“I thought it was a very complete game,” Jones said. “We challenged our football team all week long. This has to be a game of complimentary football. We had to play complimentary football and really complement each other in all three phases: offense, defense and special teams. We were able to do it. I thought our team showed some maturity on the road.”
Towles did put Kentucky on the board one more time with a touchdown pass to Garrett Johnson. Tennessee responded, again, with big plays to finish off the Wildcats, who have now lost three straight after starting the season 4-1.
This time it came from the special teams.
Evan Berry returned the ensuing kickoff 100 yards for a score, giving him three kickoff returns for a touchdown on the season – tying Willie Gault’s record. An 84-yard punt return for a touchdown by Cam Sutton at the 5:29 mark of the third quarter sealed it for the Vols, giving them what would become their final tally of 52-21 in a game that was finished up primarily by reserve players.
After doing it in the Western Carolina game as well earlier this year, UT returned both a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown in the same game twice in a season for the first time since 1950.
“Our players have been through a lot this year and it’s kind of galvanized us as a football team and a football program,” Jones said. “I’m really proud of them for that. We have a one-game approach. It doesn’t matter who our opponent is.”
The Vols took care of business in Lexington on Saturday night. Four more regular-season tests await, starting with South Carolina next weekend in Knoxville.