KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Neyland Stadium was void of defense Saturday afternoon, but Kentucky and Tennessee’s matchup was decided by performance in the red zone.
Kentucky (5-5, 4-4 SEC) is still searching for its elusive sixth win to book its first bowl trip since 2010. The Wildcats fell out of SEC East title contention and the Volunteers took a big step toward wearing the divisional crown.
Here’s how we graded Kentucky’s 49-36 loss to Tennessee.
Kentucky’s 443 rushing yards were the most it’s had against a conference opponent. The Wildcats’ 635 total yards was the seventh most in school history.
But the problem was lit up on the scoreboard — just 36 points awarded for all those yards.
Boom Williams, Benny Snell and the return of Jojo Kemp got what they wanted on the ground, but Kentucky’s pass game failed to keep the defense guessing in the red zone when all 11 of Tennessee’s defenders could rely on a run.
Quarterback Stephen Johnson was just 12-29 for 192 yards with no touchdowns. Johnson almost went for a huge score on the ground on Kentucky’s first possession, but his passing problems continued and his receivers did little to help. Johnson showed off the pretty deep ball that has come to be expected, but intermediate throws to pick up third downs aren’t there.
The offense picked up just 16 points — one touchdown and three field goals — on its first five red zone appearances. Snell fumbled on the fifth from the 4-yard line to spoil that chance. But aside from the troubles inside the 20-yard line, this might’ve been the best offensive performance of the year for the Wildcats, given their opponent.
Saturday will need to be forgotten by Kentucky’s defense.
Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs put up playground numbers: 223 passing yards, 147 rushing yards and 5 total touchdowns. Running back Alvin Kamara was too fast to stop as well.
After wins over the less-than-stellar offenses of South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Missouri, Tennessee offered a whole other look as far as speed and size on offense. It didn’t help Kentucky’s chances that star sophomore linebacker Jordan Jones missed most of the game with back spasms and several other defenders were on and off the sidelines with various minor ailments.
Special teams: C+
Austin MacGinnis did his job by connecting on field goals from 25, 33 and 37 yards, but punting was again an issue for the Wildcats.
Grant McKinniss averaged 41 yards a punt on five attempts, slightly above his season average, but he put only 1 punt inside the 20. Stephen Johnson (on a pooch punt) couldn’t get that done, either. McKinniss hasn’t often succeeded to help the Wildcats flip the field, and he entered Saturday 89th in the country in yards per punt.
Both the kickoff and punt coverage teams were good for Kentucky on Saturday. The punt team recovered a fumble after the Tennessee returner made a puzzling play to try and field a bouncing kick.
Overall, special teams has been consistently good for Kentucky, but the punting problems seem to get worse each week.
It’s hard to criticize the offensive play-calling given the yardage number and score, but one set of plays in particular stands out.
Kentucky’s red zone woes have been much discussed (see above), but on Kentucky’s first drive in the second quarter, 7 points seemed to be a sure thing before coach Mark Stoops opted for a short field goal. Snell was given the ball six straight times to end the drive, including a third-and-goal run from 1 when he was stopped short.
There was no secret Snell was getting the ball given the Wildcats inability to throw in the red zone, and the only play Snell had been stopped on was the third-and-goal run. Kentucky lost a yard on the play to make it fourth and goal from a short two yards out. An argument can be made either way, but as a road underdog, why not try for 7? It’s easier to say after the fact because there was no way of knowing exactly how much Kentucky would later struggle to get stops.
Stoops said the extra yard is what stopped him from going for it.
“Once I realized it was from the 2, I knew we had to take (the points),” he said. “You could always play better defense and certain points are valuable.”
Thirty-six points in an SEC road game should be enough for a win.
Kentucky’s offense was largely unstoppable despite its inefficiencies near the goal line, but its defense was near its worst. It’s clear Kentucky has narrowed the talent gap between it and other SEC foes, but it still shows after games like this.