KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee had a plan for Kentucky’s offensive attack, but as is often the case in football, things change.
Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson broke loose on a 75-yard touchdown run on the Wildcats’ first offensive play of the game in a sign of things to come.
The Vols had two players in position to make the play, with nickleback Rashaan Gaulden blitzing and Todd Kelly Jr. at the second level. Gaulden blew his assignment and Kelly Jr. bit on the run action.
The Vols (7-3, 3-3 SEC) won the game by a 49-36 count, but they struggled against the run, surrendering a season-high 443 yards rushing to Kentucky, and 635 yards in all.
It was the third-most yards given up by a Tennessee defense behind the 721 surrendered by Troy (2012) and 687 against Oregon (2013).
Kentucky (5-5, 4-4) did most of its damage out of its conventional run package.
Stanley “Boom” Williams led the way with 127 yards on 16 carries, Jojo Kemp broke a 71-yard run en route to 90 yards on 8 carries and freshman Benny Snell had 79 yards on 15 carries.
“Obviously we have to get some things shored up in a hurry,” UT coach Butch Jones said. “The rushing yards, this is a prideful (defensive) group, we have to get that corrected. I think a lot of them were missed fits.”
There were plenty of missed tackles as well, though the defense did respond at the most critical of times in the game before surrendering two meaningless touchdowns in the final four minutes.
“They weren’t really trying to hit it up inside like they were in the game plan,” UT defensive end Corey Vereen said. “We prepared for some things the whole week, but I feel we should have done a better job adjusting.”
Derek Barnett, who had a quarterback sack to raise his career total to 30 and close to within two of the all-time school mark held by Reggie White, offered no excuses.
“I feel like they were a good rush team, but I feel like we knew what they were doing,” Barnett said. “I think we just had a lot of gap integrity issues.”
Senior defensive end LaTroy Lewis said the film session won’t lie.
“We’ll watch film and diagnose what happened,” Lewis said. “I don’t think it’s one thing that offenses are doing to us. It’s more about us, everyone doing their jobs and techniques.”
There were times Tennessee packed the box with eight and nine defenders, and Kentucky still was able to run the ball.
Safety Micah Abernathy returned from a hamstring injury to lead the defense with 10 tackles, and fellow safety Todd Kelly Jr. had 7 stops before leaving the game with an undisclosed lower-body injury.
“Overall, I think it was more misfits,” linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. said. “It’s not acceptable as a defense to give up that many yards.”
Preseason All-SEC cornerback Cam Sutton made his first start since suffering a fractured ankle on Sept. 17 against Ohio, totaling 3 tackles and 2 pass breakups.
Tennessee has started eight different combinations in the secondary, seven different linebacker combos and six different defensive line units.