Tennessee’s victory on Saturday against the Kentucky Wildcats was one for the ages.
Whoever thought that such a statement would apply to football? Picking up wins against the Wildcats on the football field used to be light work. An occasional upset in basketball was just a bonus.
Things are a bit different in the rivalry, as Tennessee is crawling out of the abyss and Kentucky is seemingly at its peak. Yet, the No. 11 Wildcats still couldn’t find a way to defeat the disadvantaged Volunteers.
Thanks to some bold coaching and key defensive plays, Jeremy Pruitt and company maintained the status quo as it pertains to Kentucky’s fate in Neyland Stadium. The Wildcats still haven’t beaten the Vols in Knoxville since 1984.
Darrell Taylor was undoubtedly the MVP of the game. The hybrid linebacker overshadowed future first-round pick Josh Allen. The Vols’ offensive line held Allen in check by limiting him to one sack. Taylor, on the other hand, was too much to handle for Kentucky. Taylor finished with seven total tackles and four sacks.
Kentucky stuck to their vanilla offensive attack and quarterback Terry Wilson proved to be as pedestrian as advertised. Earlier in the week, Will Warren intelligently described just how bland and predictable the Wildcats’ offense has been. Saturday’s performance was a display of how much worse it can be when the opposing defense makes significant plays.
Taylor’s sacks resulted in 31 yards of lost yardage. Tennessee had a total of five sacks that equaled 40 yards. The negative yardage was key in slowing down Benny Snell and the rest of the Wildcats’ rushing tandem. Pruitt was able to draw up a defense to contain Snell and get after Wilson on passing downs. Snell finished with 81 yards on the ground.
The first-year head coach also made some key decisions that gave the home team leverage. In contrast to the coaching blunders that plagued the Vols against South Carolina, the coaching staff came up with some gutsy calls.
With Tennessee up 10 and controlling all facets of the game, Pruitt elected to go for the jugular with a minute left in the first half. The Vols advanced the ball into Kentucky territory and eventually delivered a dagger.
The last play of the first half was a 39-yard bomb from Jarrett Guarantano. The play was poetic justice for the sophomore quarterback and it was no fluke. The gutsy New Jersey native stood in the pocket against pressure and at the last second moved laterally, stepped up and released a laser to Marquez Callaway. The play put the Vols up 17 and gave them all the momentum in the world as they received the second half kickoff.
The audacious calls didn’t stop there. After a three-and-out on their first drive of the second half, offensive coordinator Tyson Helton called a reverse pitch to Jordan Murphy that resulted in a 59-yard gain. That drive ended in Guarantano finding Dominick Wood-Anderson in the end zone. The Vols led 24-0 and never looked back.
It was clear that Pruitt had a huge coaching advantage. By putting his players in an advantageous position and giving them confidence, the first-year coach made this matchup look like the rivalry of old. The players clearly fed off of the approach that the coaching staff displayed. The result was making Kentucky look like … well … Kentucky. The bad news for them is that it’s basketball season too.