KNOXVILLE — The game was as ugly as Tennessee’s uniforms.
The Volunteers, clad in a hideous solid black trimmed in orange, might have doubled for Halloween decorations on this night at Neyland Stadium. They also could have gone as the 1985 Chicago Bears, they way they manhandled Kentucky in a 44-6 blowout.
And yet, for the first roughly 25 minutes, the Wildcats had the Vols right where they needed them. Not where they “wanted” them. Where they needed them – that is to say, battling their way through a game whose pace was more to Kentucky’s liking.
Tennessee, as is its wont, took the lead 90 seconds into the game on a 55-yard touchdown strike from Hendon Hooker to Jalin Hyatt, who couldn’t have been more wide open if he were hiding in Thompson-Boling Arena.
UK Defensive Coordinator Brad White told the media later that the Wildcats had specifically practiced how to handle Hyatt, who specializes in deep routes. “It just didn’t get done,” he said. It didn’t get done again later, when Hyatt burned Kentucky on another deep ball.
But not long after his first score, Kentucky answered, driving 71 yards, primarily on the ground, for a touchdown with Chris Rodriguez covering the final three. The Vols blocked the extra point but still, it was a 7-6 game.
Tennessee had eased out to a 20-6 lead when the Wildcats put together another solid drive, carrying all the way to the UT 12-yard line. That’s where, on 3rd-and-7, Will Levis dropped back and fired a strike to Dane Key. Unfortunately for the Cats, the ball and a Tennessee defender arrived at precisely the same time, the pass bouncing off Key’s hands, into the hands of another defender.
Tennessee didn’t convert the turnover into points but it was a scoring opportunity wasted by the Wildcats, who gave up another late touchdown and limped into the locker room down, 27-6.
“After that (turnover), I kept making plays that were detrimental to us,” Levis told on the post-game radio show. “We really thought that if we went into halftime down by one possession with the ball in our hands we’d be fine.”
They were anything but.
Blessed with a fat lead and a world of confidence, the Volunteers opened the second half with their ears pinned back, intent on destroying any opportunity Levis had to look downfield. The Vols scored 17 more points and kept the Cats off the scoreboard, turning what had been a promising matchup into a rout.
“We just know that we can play so much better,” Levis said. “I missed some throws. I could have done a better job. I put it on myself not to end drives the way I did tonight on third down.”
Prior to the trip to Knoxville, Levis had been completing 82 percent of his throws on third down. Not in Neyland, where the Wildcats were 2-for-13 on third down.
“That’s been a great part of our offense,” Levis said. “I didn’t get it done today. It stinks. I have to learn from it.”
Last season, UK lost this one in a track meet. On this night, the Wildcats never got out of the starting blocks after that initial touchdown. “Obviously, again, it’s not good enough ,” said head coach Mark Stoops. “It’s too inconsistent at times. You have no chance to beat Tennessee if you have 200 yards of offense.”
That paltry sum is why the UK defense spent so much time on the field, trying to keep up with the breakneck pace of the UT offense. And the Wildcats found themselves playing without senior linebacker DeAndre Square, who left the game late in the first half and returned after intermission in street clothes, on crutches, his left foot in a boot.
Up next is Missouri, intent on handing the Wildcats a second straight loss and their fourth in five games, after a 4-0 start. It’s up to Kentucky to keep one loss from becoming two.
“That’s life,” said White. “What’s the key? It’s football character. What do you have inside you?”
Stoops said he told his team as much right after the game. “We have to respond,” he said. “The last time we lost a game, it became two,” referring to back-to-back losses to Ole Miss and South Carolina.
And now, the team that dreamed of challenging Georgia for the top spot in the SEC East is playing for the best bowl game possible, eligibility coming with one more win. It’s been a long time since that was the goal for UK football.
“I told the team, you’re going to have tough losses in this league,” said Stoops. “We better be ready to play against Missouri.”
If they aren’t one loss definitely will become two. Said Levis, “We’re definitely a good football team. We can beat a team like Tennessee. Not when you play the way we did tonight.”