It’s November. And you can tell by the Vols performance on Saturday. Tennessee has historically played well in November, but those normal November teams usually aren’t 7-2 and ranked 11th in the nation. The promise of head coach Jeremy Pruitt’s first season was that the Vols would look much different in November than they looked in September. Last week’s disappointing effort against Charlotte caused concern, but Pruitt and company answer the bell this week.
The Kentucky Wildcats came into Knoxville looking for their first win in Neyland Stadium since 1982 and their first two-game winning streak against Tennessee since 1977. The decade of dysfunction may be mercifully over; order was restored on Saturday with a dominant Tennessee win over the Kentucky Wildcats.
Tennessee Vols Game Grades Kentucky Edition
Tennessee’s offense looked excellent against an underrated defense from Kentucky. The Wildcats have a legitimate Bednarik Award candidate in Josh Allen. Offensive Coordinator Tyson Helton replicated the Auburn play sheet. And while the Vols didn’t execute as well against Kentucky as they did against Auburn, they still put up impressive numbers against a solid defense.
Offensive Stat of the Game: 1 Kentucky sack on Jarrett Guarantano
Jarrett Guarantano didn’t have the same success as he’s had in other games, particularly the Auburn game. His passing wasn’t as crisp, going 12-20 (60%), with limited success downfield. And there were several attempts that were far too dangerous. For the second straight game, Guarantano was too quick on third down to throw short of the sticks. That’s pretty picky given the Tennessee signal caller now has a school record 145 attempts without an interception and is clearly the leader of this team.
Running Backs: B
Ty Chandler and Tim Jordan had a solid A grade until two fumbles late in the game. It didn’t cost the Vols today, but it was still worth docking the group. Jordan had the best day of the group, with 63 yards, a big 34 yard reception, and no turnovers. Chandler and Madre London accounted for the fourth quarter fumbles. Chandler ran hard all day and tallied 89 yards on 16 carries.
The receivers had a solid day, although there were some opportunities to make plays that slipped away. Their biggest play of the day was Jordan Murphy‘s 59 yard rush. Marquez Callaway and Dominick Wood-Anderson added touchdown receptions. With only twelve total receptions, it would be hard to get too high of a grade.
Offensive Line: B
No unit looked more different today than in September than the offensive line. In fact, this was the first game of the season where the offensive line looked above average. The line wasn’t dominant; they didn’t push the Wildcats off the line. But their technique was much improved, creating running lanes consistently. The pass protection was even better allowing and dominant Kentucky pass rush only one sack on the day. Drew Richmond had two penalties, continuing his mental mistakes. But Richmond looked fairly good against Josh Allen most of the day. Marcus Tatum was the only player that consistently under-performed. Nathan Niehaus, Ryan Johnson, and Jahmir Johnson looked good in the interior. Easily the offensive line’s best game of the season.
A dominant day for the Vols defense. It was scheme and execution. The Vols held the Wildcats, averaging over 24 points per game, to seven points. More importantly, a Tennessee defense that has been gashed on the ground repeatedly over the last two seasons, held All-American candidate Benny Snell, Jr. to 81 total yards and the Wildcat rushing attack to just 77 total yards.
With two fumbles in the fourth quarter, the offense again put pressure on the defense. And the defense rose to the occasion in grand fashion. Tennessee, aided by Kentucky, made the game one-dimensional, and that was the key to stopping Snell.
Defensive Stat of the Game: 7 total Kentucky points.
Defensive Line: A
They won’t show up on the stat sheet much, but Shy Tuttle and Alexis Johnson consistently clogged up the interior of the line of scrimmage and made it very difficult for Snell to wiggle through. After some early adjustments, the Tennessee defense line dominated a stout Kentucky offensive line. Kyle Phillips continues his sold play on the season.
Easily the best unit on the field today. Daniel Bituli and Darrell Taylor absolutely dominated the game. Bituli tallied eight tackles, 2.5 for a loss. He was the key cog in stopping the Kentucky rushing attack and was added by Darrin Kirkland, Jr. But the star of the day was Taylor, with seven tackles, four sacks, and a fumble recovery. It was Taylor, not Allen, that looked like the Bednarik Award candidate.
Defensive Backs: B-
The secondary benefited from a slow day from Kentucky quarterback Terry Wilson. Wilson was 21-for-34 (62%), but was inconsistent. The Wildcat receivers had several drops as well. The Vols secondary gave Kentucky huge cushions, and when Wilson and his receivers executed well, they found success. Baylen Buchanan struggled in run defense and pass defense, missing two bad tackles and yielding the only Kentucky touchdown of the day to a tight end. Bryce Thompson had another strong game, although he left the game late on a scary injury.
Special Teams: B
A lot of good things will show up on film. The offensive and defensive schemes were well planned this weekend. On offense, Helton was able to negate Kentucky’s key players. He again, as he did against Auburn and South Carolina, created multiple match ups advantageous to the Vols.
On defense, Pruitt was able to make Kentucky one dimensional. Pruitt’s dress-down of Helton at the end of the first half was unseemly, especially with the offense scoring. But he’s been clear that he is developing as well.
But most importantly, the offensive linemen and the linebackers look like they’ve been coached over the last three months. That should give Vols fans hope for what lies ahead. The team was well prepared, confident, and executed well on Saturday. A lot of that is a product of quality coaching.
What a difference a week makes. Tennessee’s effort last week was disappointing. Now Tennessee has a dominant performance against the 11th ranked team in the nation. The Vols find themselves one win away from bowl eligibility with conference games against Missouri (6-4) and Vanderbilt (4-6). The Vols welcome Missouri and former head coach Derek Dooley (offensive coordinator) to Knoxville next week and travel to Vanderbilt to close out the regular season in two weeks. Missouri potent passing attack doesn’t match up well against Tennessee, but Tennessee should be a favorite against Vanderbilt.
Will November continue to be a month that Tennessee fans enjoy? If so, the improvement, and the enjoyment, will extend into December.
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