KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee’s defense didn’t do a whole lot right on Saturday.
The Vols allowed 29 first downs, 443 rushing yards and 22 explosive plays (those of 10 yards or longer).
And yet, Tennessee smoked Kentucky 49-36 because a “prideful unit” held the fort with their backs up against the wall.
While the Wildcats were able to rack up ridiculous yardage in the loss, the Vols stiffened inside the 20-yard-line, allowing just 2 touchdowns on six trips in the red zone.
It proved to be the difference in the game.
“Defensively, obviously a lot of stuff to correct and improve upon, but the one thing I thought was glaring in this game was our red zone efficiency defensively,” coach Butch Jones said.
“That’s a prideful group. We have to get that corrected and the rush yards and the big plays that we gave up in the run game. From the sideline, I think a lot of them were misfits. We misfit too many tackles. We’ll go back to work, but it’s resolve and resiliency. Again, we rallied to make them kick field goals as opposed to touchdowns, and that gave us an opportunity.”
Kentucky scored a touchdown on its opening trip inside the 20, but the ‘Cats wouldn’t punch it in again from the red area until there was less than 2 minutes remaining in the game. They were forced to kick 3 field goals and also fumbled at the 8-yard-line.
Several Vols made key stops including Corey Vereen, who made a big tackle for loss at the 1-yard line, little-used safety Stephen Griffin, who forced a fumble, and Cam Sutton, who had a pass breakup on third down.
“It was just a bunch of guys on defense just hunkering down,” said Vereen, who added 2 sacks. “I feel like when you get in the red zone it makes it more apparent that we needed a stop. We just got the job done today in the red zone.”
Tennessee’s defense also responded to pressure following a Josh Smith muffed punt inside its own territory. The Vols quickly forced a UK three-and-out, blowing up two runs on early downs.
“It was just a mindset to keep them out of the end zone,” All-American pass rusher Derek Barnett said. “We knew we gave them a few big runs, a couple big runs. When we get in the red zone, we always think about just giving three points – stop them to a field goal – and that’s what we did.”
Conversely, Tennessee — led by efficient quarterback Josh Dobbs — scored touchdowns on all three trips inside the 20-yard-line.
“That is always something we talk about at practice, always finishing each drive,” tailback John Kelly said. “When we are in the red zone, we have to make sure we have all seven points, and we need to take advantage of each possession.”
They did. The Wildcats didn’t. Ballgame.