The downward spiral continues. In fitting fashion, Tennessee completes a hail mary pass at the end of the game that ends up three yards short. The Volunteers fall to Kentucky for just the second time since 1985. That’s two generations of Tennessee fans that don’t know — or didn’t know — what it was like to lose to Kentucky.
The Beer Barrel goes back to Lexington. Will something else be leaving Knoxville this weekend? With six straight losses, including blow outs to Georgia and Alabama, you have to think the end is near for Butch Jones. You just can’t lose to South Carolina, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky in a 365-day stretch and maintain your job as coach at Tennessee.
Tennessee Game Grades South Carolina Edition
We’re grading on a curve here. After 15 full quarters — almost a month and a half — Tennessee’s offense scores two touchdowns in the game tonight. That was without John Kelly, suspended for this game. Kelly had accounted for almost 40% of offensive plays for the Vols offense. Even with some success, the Vols couldn’t close the deal. Neither in the red zone, nor at the end of the game.
Offensive Stat of the Game: 0 TDs off of four Kentucky turnovers. (3 Field Goals)
Jarrett Guarantano continues to mature at the quarterback position. Guarantano had a solid performance tonight. He did what he had to do in the air, going 18-for-23 with 242 yards. He was able to reach the end zone, but he also avoided turnovers. He is still making some poor decisions, such as the intentional grounding penalty. He also didn’t have as much of an impact on the ground as we thought he would. In a game against Kentucky, Guarantano missed an opportunity to add a dimension that the Wildcat defense would have to account for.
Running Backs: B
In the absence of John Kelly, Ty Chandler and Carlin Fils-Aime had excellent nights. Fils-Aime was good and Chandler was great. Chandler ran with speed and power. Both running backs hit holes, both small and large, with speed and authority. One has to wonder what Tennessee could have done if Guarantano had asserted himself as a rushing threat in Tennessee’s style of offense. Unfortunately, Tim Jordan looked lost out there. He practically sacked Guarantano in the red zone in the fourth quarter, killing another red zone scoring opportunity.
While the receivers had decent numbers, there were no game changing plays. Much of their effectiveness came through penalties as well. Josh Smith‘s holding penalty negated a long Ty Chandler touchdown on the first drive of the game. Josh Palmer had a nice catch, and Brandon Johnson and Jeff George played well.
Offensive Line: D
Never in the history of the game of football has an offensive line played so well in rush offense and so poorly in pass protection. It’s baffling how they can give up seven sacks while also enabling 203 yards of rushing offense. The line should get two different grades, one for Trey Smith (A) who continues to show All-American caliber promise, and another grade (F) for the rest of the offensive line. The erratic snaps continued. The false start penalties in the red zone continue. And Drew Richmond got abused by Kentucky on the pass rush.
Tennessee’s defense was good at time tonight. But again, the defense couldn’t bail the offense out. Kentucky scored 21 first half points, and didn’t score again until less than one minute left in the game.
The defense generated four turnovers, of which the offense only managed nine points. But Kentucky continued to run the ball effectively and was able to punch the ball in at the end, when it counted.
Defensive Stat of the Game: 289 rushing yards for Kentucky.
Defensive Line: C
As they have all season, the defensive line created some pressure in the passing game, but couldn’t get to Stephen Johnson tonight. The defensive line did created two of the four turnovers. Kendall Vickers and Shy Tuttle accounted for those two forced fumbles. Kyle Phillips brought some energy to the game, but struggled at the point of attack.
The Vols missed Daniel Bituli after he was ejected from the game. The linebackers were effective in pass defense, but were slow to respond to Kentucky’s edge rushing game. Kentucky found success off-tackle, as Tennessee’s linebackers looked slow on the outside. In a game against a team like Kentucky, that relies so heavily on a rushing style offense, you would hope the linebacking corps would be much more active than they were.
Defensive Backs: C+
As with Bituli’s loss, the defense really felt the loss of Rashaan Gaulden after he was ejected in the second half. The defensive backs caused two the four turnovers, with Gaulden accounting for a forced fumble and a fumble recovery on the same play. Gaulden continues to be the most important person on the defense. Nigel Warrior was great in run defense, but had two poor plays in pass defense. He also dropped a potential game-sealing interception in the end zone in the fourth quarter. But with Kentucky having only 82 yards of passing offense, it’s awfully hard to put a lot of blame on the defensive backs.
Special Teams: F
Brent Cimaglia missed two makeable field goals. The kickoff coverage team was unusually poor in coverage. Neither return unit could muster any momentum changes. And Trevor Daniel was just average today.
In the last 365 days, the Vols have lost to Vanderbilt for the second time in four years, South Carolina off a bye for the second consecutive year, Georgia for the worst home loss in 100 years, Bama by a bunch for the tenth straight time, and now Kentucky for only the second time since 1985. Jayson Swain is right — the hire is much more important than the fire — but at some point you just have to go and make the change. For no other reason, to let people know that losing to Kentucky is unacceptable.
The players have a share in this, too. There’s no doubt about that. But it’s also the coaches responsibility to prepare the players. The development and mental preparation just isn’t there.
People are wondering more about the program than the next game. Will Butch Jones be the coach when the sun goes down on Sunday?
Regardless, Tennessee now finds itself having to win out just to reach a bowl game. Southern Miss comes to Knoxville next week. Tennessee will look to get the offense back in rhythm against the Group-of-Five Golden Eagles. Both Missouri and Vanderbilt are winnable games, but Tennessee still has a game against LSU coming up on the schedule.
First things first, Tennessee must take care of business against a dangerous running back in Ito Smith from Southern Miss. Can the Vols salvage the season, or will the misery continue with a loss to Conference USA team?