Kentucky has branded itself on being a physical football team that imposed its will on opponents.
On Saturday, Tennessee (5-5) was the team the No. 11 Wildcats (7-3) claimed to be. The Vols dominated in the trenches on both sides of the ball from the jump and never let up.
The first half went surprisingly well for the Vols as they slowed down the SEC’s second-leading rusher – Benny Snell – just two weeks after allowing South Carolina running back Rico Dowdle to rush for 10 yards a carry and total 140 yards on the ground.
Not only did Tennessee hold Kentucky to 68 total yards in the first half, but the Vols held the Cats’ vaunted rushing attack to 26 yards and just 1.3 yards a carry on 20 attempts. In total, Tennessee limited Kentucky to 2.1 yards per play and held them to 3-of-9 on third down in that first half.
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While Jeremy Pruitt’s defense was holing Snell and the Cats in check, Tennessee’s offense was slowly starting to find a rhythm. The Vols held a 3-0 lead at the end of the first quarter with only 64 yards of offense but exploded for 14 second quarter points.
Both of Tennessee’s second quarter touchdowns came in the final 2:05 of the half, but the offense was in a much better rhythm throughout the quarter. Guarantano was 6-of-8 for 129 yards in the second frame as Tennessee racked up 177 yards of offense. On the ground, the Vols rushed for 48 yards after just 18 first quarter rushing yards.
With confidence slowly starting to build after Tim Jordan’s three-yard rushing touchdown to put Tennessee up 10-0 with 2:05 remaining in the half, it was the final score as time expired that signaled the Vols dominance was no fluke.
“We weren’t really trying to be aggressive,” Pruitt said about the end of the first half. “We were trying to run the clock out.”
Tennessee got the ball back with one minute remaining in the half and two timeouts left. On the first play, Guarantano fired a pass that went through Jauan Jennings’ hands on a bubble screen. Ty Chandler then rushed for two yards on second down. But on third down and with the Vols trying to run out the clock, Chandler broke off a 14-yard run up the middle to the Tennessee 44-yard line and picked up a first down.
That’s when the Vols went into attack mode.
“Once we got a first down, we had a little bit of field position,” Pruitt said. “Now you have a chance. The last thing we wanted to with a 10-0 lead getting the ball to start the second half was to give them an opportunity to go into halftime with something positive.”
Following Chandler’s first down run, Guarantano was able to find Marquez Callaway for a 17-yard gain, moving the ball to the Kentucky 39-yard line with 13 seconds remaining.
“Jarrett (Guarantano) scrambled and hit a guy that got out of bounds, but we were a little bit out of field goal range, so we took a shot to the end zone,” Pruitt explained.
The shot to the end zone resulted in a 39-yard competition to Callaway on a Hail Mary as the first half clock expired. Callaway’s improbable grab propelled Tennessee to a 17-0 lead at the break and affirmed the Vols’ performance in the first half of play.
“I thought Jarrett did a good job evading a little bit of rush there,” Pruitt stated. “He stepped up in the pocket and made a good throw to give us a chance and Marquez (Callaway) went up and got it.”
Tennessee’s second Hail Mary in three seasons changed the outlook on the rest of the game. Confidence aside, it was a huge momentum swing. Instead of entering the half with a 10-0 lead, it was now 17-0, a seven-point swing.
“It was a big seven-point momentum swing that I’m sure they weren’t counting on when the drive started,” Pruitt said. “We weren’t either.
“This was far and away the most complete game that our guys have played. I thought our staff did a fantastic job.”
The Vols would go on to upset the Wildcats by three scores, winning 24-7. After playing spoiler to Kentucky’s potential 10-win season, Tennessee now turns its attention to Missouri and former head coach Derek Dooley – who is now the Tigers’ offensive coordinator. With a win over Missouri, the Vols will have played themselves into a bowl game, a scenario that seemed improbable after the West Virginia and Florida debacles.
Guarantano connecting with Callaway at the end of the first half against Kentucky just may be what propels Tennessee to an enjoyable Christmas break.