Kentucky football did a fairly amazing thing Saturday at Tennessee. The Wildcats piled up 635 yards, including 443 on the ground — and lost the game, 49-36, squandering their shot at tying for the SEC East title in the process.
Before two garbage-time touchdowns, Kentucky (5-5, 4-4 SEC) actually trailed by 27. That is really hard to do, given the offense’s production. So difficult, in fact, that the SEC Network noted during its broadcast the Wildcats became the first FBS team this season to rush for 400-plus and lose.
How, then, did Mark Stoops’ team accomplish such a dubious feat? Three things: red-zone futility, terrible tackling and injuries. Let’s get that last one out of the way first, because it certainly played a real part in the problems.
Kentucky lost starting cornerback Chris Westry — and briefly his counterpart, Derrick Baity — in the first quarter. Leading tackler Jordan Jones and top receiver Jeff Badet were out by halftime. The team’s two best pass rushers, Josh Allen and Denzil Ware, both hobbled off at various points.
But that is no excuse for allowing 599 yards on just 59 plays — a staggering average of 10.2 per snap. Stoops’ defense delivered its poorest tackling performance of the season, letting Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs light them up for the fourth straight year. He threw for 223 yards, ran for 147 and produced 5 total touchdowns.
The Volunteers (7-3, 3-3) stayed alive in the East race by breaking off 10 plays of 20-plus yards against Kentucky: runs of 22, 27, 29, 35, 39, 41 and 45 yards, passes of 24, 44 and 51 yards. Put another way, Tennessee gained an astounding 357 yards on those 10 plays alone.
In most of those cases, the Cats had chances to limit the damage and simply whiffed. Likewise, the offense had so much more within its grasp Saturday but couldn’t close its fists and throw a knockout punch.
With 12:05 to go in the third quarter, Kentucky had outgained Tennessee 349 yards to 289 but trailed by five points because in three consecutive red-zone trips, the Wildcats had settled for field goals. Then, trailing by a dozen but driving, freshman running back Benny Snell fumbled the ball away at UT’s 4.
Four trips inside the 15, nine total points. Game over.
And remember last week? When the Wildcats rode Snell all the way to first-and-goal at the Georgia 9 with 4:04 to go, only to stall, settle for a tying field goal and watch helplessly as the Bulldogs drove for their own winning kick? The red-zone issue is real.
Look, Kentucky football is improving. You don’t start 0-2 and then reel off five wins in your next six tries without progress. You don’t run wild on the Volunteers, a preseason top-10 team that has faltered but remains loaded with talent, if you haven’t upgraded your own side significantly.
But the last two games have made it clear that the Cats are growing incrementally, not yet ready for leaps and bounds. With a winless FCS team, Austin Peay, coming to Commonwealth Stadium next week, the program’s first bowl berth since 2010 is still imminent. That’s something.
The frustrating fact for Stoops and his eager fan base is that, like so many Kentucky touchdowns and Tennessee ballcarriers Saturday, a bigger and better season was right there in front of the Wildcats, but remained just out of reach.