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Tennessee’s Win At Kentucky Perfectly Exemplifies These Vols

Photo by Tennessee Athletics

LEXINGTON, Ky — For all intents and purposes, Tennessee’s 2020 football season came to an end when Jamin Davis strolled into the north end zone for Kentucky’s second pick six in as many drives last October at Neyland Stadium.

The Vols showed no fight in the second half of Kentucky’s first win inside Neyland Stadium in 36 years. Tennessee showed very little fight the remainder of the season as they lost seven of its final eight games and Jeremy Pruitt lost his job.

From the moment Josh Heupel arrived in Knoxville, building team camaraderie and accountability that wouldn’t allow players to give up or back down was a point of emphasis.

Countless times this season, Tennessee players said this season would not be like 2020. The Vols would not quit.

Four weeks after Tennessee last won a game and 386 days after collapsing against its northern border rival, the Vols proved just that— holding on to win a wild one, 45-42, at Kroger Field in Lexington.

Tennessee’s offense started as it has so often this season, scoring on the first play from scrimmage and twice on the first four plays it ran.

“I don’t know if we thought those four plays would gain that type of yardage,” Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel said postgame. “There were some things we thought we could take advantage of. Really high level of execution from guys without the ball in their hands that allowed those big plays to happen.”

Unlike some of Tennessee’s games this season, the strong offensive first quarter didn’t lead to a large lead. Kentucky’s offense came to play after disappointing last week against Mississippi State.

The Wildcats scored touchdowns on three of their five first half drives and got into Tennessee territory on the other two.

Tennessee was reeling late in the second quarter when it scored 10 points in 1:14 to take the lead. The last three points came on a three play, 35 yard field goal drive that ran out the final 16 seconds of the half.

The aggression from Heupel proved massive as the three points proved to be the difference.

“Just coming off the sidelines seeing we didn’t have too much time to operate with my thought was let’s be efficient, move the ball down the field, get some quick hits, get out of bounds and set the field goal team up if we can’t get it down there to score,” Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker said.

A third quarter pick six from Alontae Taylor ended the back-and-forth scoring drives that saw Kentucky and Tennessee exchange leads late in the first half and early in the third quarter.

In a game that felt like Tennessee needed to score every time it touched the ball to win, the Wildcats stopped the Vols twice and had two possessions with a chance to take the lead.

On the first one, Tennessee’s defense got off the field with a Byron Young sack on fourth-and-seven.

Both teams exchanged touchdowns from there and three drives later Tennessee had first-and-goal at the six-yard line needing a touchdown to effectively ice the game.

From there, Kentucky sacked Hooker twice and Chase McGrath missed a 35-yard field goal. 

Kentucky had the ball first-and-10 at its own 18-yard line with three timeouts and 4:42 left on the clock.

The Wildcats had gashed Tennessee all game, totaling 612 total yards and 35 first downs. The situation felt too perfect for Kentucky. The Wildcats moved the ball on the ground and through the air all game and had four touchdown drives that elapsed between 3:05 and 5:30.

Things looked even grimmer after Kentucky miraculously converted a fourth-and-24 to give itself a fresh set of downs at Tennessee’s 38-yard line. The Wildcats needed just a field goal to force overtime.

From there, Tennessee’s defense did the improbable. The Vols’ brought pressure on four straight plays while playing man-to-man defense. All four of Will Levis’ passes fell incomplete and the Vols had their first top 25 win since beating No. 12 Kentucky in 2018.

“We’re very relentless,” cornerback Alontae Taylor said of the defense. “We’re going to keep coming, we’re going to keep pounding and we’re going to keep chopping wood. We’ve got to play a 60 minute game. We always say we’re going to come in and play a 60 minute game and that’s exactly what we did.”

That ending appropriately defined this Tennessee football team. After coming close to earning strong wins against Pittsburgh and No. 13 Ole Miss, Tennessee just kept its head down and kept working.

In its third one possession game of the season, Tennessee finally found a way to win thanks to the grit and perseverance of the players that decided not to transfer elsewhere but to finish their careers in Knoxville.

That group celebrated with the Tennessee fans that made the two and a half hour trek north on Interstate-75 and then made their way into the Kroger Field away locker room to ice a cold Kentucky night with a dance party.

“We got down with the get down,” receiver Velus Jones Jr. said. “If you’ve ever seen Fortnite but the Travis Scott version where it’s like a thousand people up in their dancing just having a good time. You know coach Heup got some moves on him as well.”

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