5 Observations: Tennessee 17, Kentucky 13

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    (Photo via Tennessee Athletics)

    Momentum flew back and forth on Saturday night. After Kentucky jumped out to a 13-0 lead, Tennessee regained the upper hand in the third quarter and took a 17-13 lead heading into the final quarter of play.

    No points were scored in the fourth, but that doesn’t mean it was devoid of drama.

    The Vols had to stop Kentucky twice on fourth down, and they rose to the occasion both times. On the first one, Tennessee got bailed out by a bad play call by the Wildcats that resulted in an incomplete pass. The second stop, though, was much more dramatic.

    Kentucky had the ball 1st and goal at the Tennessee 6 yard-line with over two minutes to go in the game. The Wildcats were able to punch it down to the two, then a penalty on UT for having too many men on the field (after coming out of a timeout, of all things) put the ball at the one, and UK had it 3rd and goal there. Then, Henry To’o To’o stood up Chris Rodriguez for a loss of one, setting up a fourth down from the two.

    Lynn Bowden swept right, kept the ball rather than pitching it, and was stuffed by Daniel Bituli short and Ja’Quain Blakely of the end zone.

    The Vols would pick up a first down on a third down scramble by Jarrett Guarantano on their ensuing possession, sealing the game and the victory.

    Tennessee (5-5, 3-3 SEC) gutted out an impressive win over Kentucky (4-5, 2-5 SEC) on the road in Lexington on Saturday night, winning 17-13. After the Wildcats had what looked to be a commanding 13-0 lead after the first quarter of play, Tennessee wouldn’t give up a single point the rest of the night and stymied the Wildcat offense in the second half.

    Kentucky gained 112 yards and held the Vols to just three yards of offense in the first quarter, outscoring UT 13-0 in the process. After that, Tennessee out-gained the Wildcats 293 to 215 over the final three quarters of play, and the Vols outscored Kentucky 17-0 while doing so.

    Brian Maurer got the start at quarterback, but after ineffective play to begin the game, Jeremy Pruitt turned to Jarrett Guarantano for the second half. The redshirt junior came out on fire, completing his first seven passes of the night for 115 yards and two touchdowns, giving the Vols the lead in the third quarter on a 12-yard touchdown pass to Josh Palmer, who made an incredible grab for the score.

    The Vols’ defense was on a whole different level in the second half, and both Daniel Bituli and Nigel Warrior played like men possessed. Kentucky’s Lynn Bowden had his most inefficient game as Kentucky’s quarterback this season, running for 114 yards but needing 26 carries to do so. He also threw an interception that was nearly returned for a touchdown, and he finished just 4-of-7 for 25 yards.

    Here are our five biggest takeaways from Tennessee’s second-straight victory over Kentucky and their third-straight win of the season.

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    The Jarrett Guarantano Comeback Story

    Jarrett Guarantano has (rightfully) lost favor with Vol fans this season. But his efforts on Saturday night against Kentucky — and his play against South Carolina two weeks ago — have been nothing short of impressive considering how this season started out.

    Freshman Brian Maurer got the start at quarterback for the Vols on Saturday night, but it was evident early on that he wasn’t on top of his game. Maurer settled in a little bit in the second quarter, but he was having troubles making accurate passes and also checking into the right run calls.

    Jeremy Pruitt decided to make a change in the second half, and Guarantano led the offense when the Vols took over to start the third quarter. And he commanded the offense with confidence.

    The redshirt junior looked more confident on Saturday than he has at any point this season. He was making crisp throws, and he ran the ball several times for good chunks of yards. In fact, Guarantano finished as the Vols’ leading rusher against Kentucky, totaling 30 yards on six carries.

    Guarantano came out firing in the second half, completing his first seven pass attempts for 115 yards. Two of those seven passes went for touchdowns, as he connected with Marquez Callaway on a 17-yard score and found Josh Palmer — who made a ridiculous catch — in the end zone for a 12-yard touchdown all in the third quarter.

    After completing those seven passes, Guarantano only attempted one more pass on the night, and it was an incompletion. He finished the night 7-of-8 for 115 yards and two touchdowns, marking the third time this season he’s come off the bench and led Tennessee to victory.

    Lights Out Defense 

    After getting pounded to death by Kentucky’s rushing attack in the first quarter and still getting whipped up front in the second quarter, the Vols’ defense was exceptionally stout in the second half.

    Kentucky averaged 5.6 yards per carry in the first half and had 185 rushing yards and 13 points of offense in the opening half of play. But in the second half, Tennessee held the Wildcats to 117 rushing yards and only 3.8 yards a carry. More importantly, the Vols didn’t allow Kentucky to score any points in the second half and held them to 3-of-7 on third down and 0-of-3 on fourth down.

    Lynn Bowden came into Saturday’s game averaging eight yards per carry in his three starts as Kentucky’s emergency quarterback. But against the Vols, he averaged a mere 4.4 yards an attempt, easily his worst performance since taking over as UK’s quarterback.

    All four of Kentucky’s main runners ripped off runs of 20-plus yards, with Bowden (21 yards), Kavosiey Smoke (22 yards), Chris Rodriguez (23 yards), and Asim Rose (26 yards) all getting huge gains at various points in the game. But Tennessee tightened up when it mattered most.

    Daniel Bituli, Nigel Warrior, and Henry To’o To’o were all over the field on Saturday. Bituli finished with 19 tackles and half a tackle for loss, and he made the game-clinching tackle on fourth down at the goal line. Warrior intercepted yet another pass, and if not for a sliver of his cleat being out of bounds, would’ve returned that INT for a touchdown. To’o To’o totaled eight tackles and a tackle for loss.

    Saturday wasn’t the Vols’ most efficient defensive performance ever, but considering how much success Kentucky has had this season just running it down opponents’ throats, Tennessee was able to withstand an early onslaught and get a huge win.

    Surviving Mistakes

    If Tennessee had lost on Saturday, they would’ve had nobody to blame but themselves. Fortunately for the Vols, they overcame a lot of their own mistakes.

    The Vols fumbled a snap on a punt, and Paxton Brooks tried to kick it away after that but had his kick blocked. That set Kentucky up with great field position at the UT 24, and they needed only two plays to score their second touchdown. Later, Tennessee fumbled the ball on a hand-off exchange between Guarantano and Ty Chandler, and Kentucky was again gifted with good field position on Tennessee’s side of the field, starting at the Vols’ 45.

    That drive ended up being the last one of the game for Kentucky, and Tennessee held them off the scoreboard.

    Not only did the Vols have those two turnovers, but UT committed several penalties that changed the complexions of drives, too. Tennessee was whistled for six penalties on Saturday and almost all of them were costly. The Vols jumped offsides twice on Kentucky’s opening possession (though only one was accepted). Trey Smith got called for an egregious hit and was slammed with a 15-yard personal foul that took a 2nd-and-7 and made it 2nd-and-22 for the Vols. That drive went from potentially ending in a touchdown to settling for a field goal in the red zone. The Vols had points taken off the board thanks to an ineligible man downfield call, and Matthew Butler kept a Kentucky drive alive with a roughing the passer penalty. That’s not to mention the “too many men on the field” flag that was thrown on the Vols coming out of a timeout on third and goal in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter.

    Yet despite all of that, Tennessee still managed to win.

    Kentucky made their own set of mistakes, most notably missing an extra point that caused their offense to have to go for a touchdown rather than a field goal in the fourth quarter on two separate drives. But Tennessee made more of them, but they somehow were able to survive.

    The Stats (Do) Lie

    Numbers normally can tell the story of a game. But for Saturday’s contest, the stats do lie.

    Kentucky out-gained the Vols, totaled 300 rushing yards, and dominated the time of possession, holding the ball for 41 minutes and 37 seconds of game time. Tennessee was flagged for more penalties, and the Wildcats ran 71 plays compared to just 46 by the Vols. Tennessee managed just 83 rushing yards, and only 37 of those came from running backs.

    Yet, the Wildcats lost.

    Tennessee was more efficient with their plays on offense, averaging 6.4 yards per play compared to Kentucky’s 4.6 yards a play. The Vols also forced a crucial Kentucky turnover, and they held the Wildcats to just 25 passing yards on just seven attempts. The Wildcats got 300 yards rushing because they ran the ball 64 times.

    On the surface, it looks like Kentucky should’ve won when looking at the box score. But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll see why Tennessee was able to pull out the victory.

    Postseason in Sight

    Tennessee’s win on Saturday did a lot to bolster the Vols’ hopes of making a bowl game.

    The victory over Kentucky pushed Tennessee’s record to 5-5 on the year, meaning they need just one more win to earn a bowl berth. And the Vols should have a great opportunity at getting there in the next two games.

    Tennessee will have a much-needed bye week this next weekend, but after that they face a reeling Missouri squad and an abysmal Vanderbilt team. Missouri has lost three-straight games and have been out-scored 77-21 in those three contests. Vanderbilt has one SEC win on the season and got lambasted by Florida on Saturday, losing 56-0 in the Swamp.

    A month ago, Tennessee’s 2019 season looked dead to rights. Now, the Vols’ postseason hopes look brighter than ever.

    Nathanael Rutherford
    Nathanael Rutherford is the managing editor and social media manager for Rocky Top Insider. Nathanael graduated from the University of Tennessee and cultivated a passion for the Vols while growing up in Knoxville a mere 10 minutes from Neyland Stadium. He's been a part of the RTI team since November of 2015 and has been the editor of RTI since June of 2017. If he's not talking or writing about Tennessee athletics, he's probably talking about Star Wars.