Florida’s victory over South Carolina on Saturday meant that the Vols needed to beat Kentucky on Saturday to stay alive in the East.
There was a slow start, historically sloppy defensive play, and plenty to improve for UT (7-3, 3-3 SEC).
But the Vols did more than enough to get the 49-36 victory over the Wildcats, extending the SEC East race for another week and giving Butch Jones a needed SEC victory after the Vols played flat in all aspects at South Carolina two weeks ago.
The Vols would show their offensive prowess later in the game, but it was Kentucky (5-5, 4-4 SEC) that needed just two plays to strike first.
Quarterback Stephen Johnson kept the opening offensive play for Kentucky, found a wide-open lane to the right side and scampered 75 yards down to the UT 10. Running back Boom Williams, who finished the evening with 127 yards, finished the drive off with a 10-yard touchdown run to put Kentucky up early.
The Vols responded with a 6-play, 83 yard drive of their own that was capped off by a 24-yard pass from Joshua Dobbs to a wide-open Josh Smith in the end zone to tie it up on what appeared to be a busted coverage.
Kentucky briefly then took a 10-7 lead with a 37-yard field goal, but Dobbs found the end zone via the ground on UT’s next drive. After coming up just short of the goal line on back-to-back runs that went to replay, Dobbs punched it in on a sweep to the right, becoming UT’s all-time leader in rushing touchdowns by a quarterback with 26, and giving UT a 14-10 lead in the process.
Kentucky added another field goal, but UT continued to find the end zone to build on its lead. UT went 79 yards in seven plays on its ensuing drive, one that was capped off by a 10-yard pass from Dobbs to Ethan Wolf for the 21-13 edge with 6:27 remaining in the first half.
Tennessee gladly continued the field goal-for-a-touchdown swapping. Kentucky kicker Austin MacGinnis connected on his third field goal of the day to cut the lead to 21-16 with 12:05 left in the third quarter. UT used the run game, and a bit of trickeration, to take control from there.
Offensive coordinator Mike DeBord dialed up a flea-flicker to put the Vols back in the end zone on the next drive. John Kelly took the handoff, turned around and pitched it back to Dobbs, who hit Josh Malone for a 51-yard scoring strike to extend the lead to 28-16 with 10:08 remaining in the third. Alvin Kamara took a 17-yard carry untouched into the end zone to cap off a 96-yard drive later in the quarter, extending UT’s lead to 35-16.
Kentucky running back JoJo Kemp took a run 71 yards to briefly get Kentucky back in the game at 35-22 after a failed 2-point conversion attempt. Dobbs, however, quickly shut the door with a 45-yard scoring scamper at the 11:51 mark of the fourth quarter to put UT up 42-22.
Tennessee’s defense, which was especially poor against the run all day, ceded two late touchdowns to the Wildcats, who never truly threatened, but did cut into the final margin.
It was a historically poor day for the UT run defense, which gave up 426 rushing yards to the Wildcats – the third-worst rushing defense in school history. .
But buoyed by 370 yards of total offense and five touchdowns by Dobbs, Tennessee did enough offensively to get the victory despite being outgained 635-599 in the contest. Red-zone efficiency was also key for the Vols. Tennessee capitalized with three touchdowns in three opportunities. Kentucky was 5-of-6 in the red zone, but three of those five were field goals. In total, Tennessee gave up just two touchdowns in six opportunities for Kentucky.
More to come…