LEXINGTON, Ky.- For a half, it looked like the Tennessee football team had undone a lot of their progress from the past month against the Kentucky Wildcats.
Behind quarterback Lynn Bowden Jr. and a strong Kentucky run game, the Vols seemingly had no answer for slowing down the Wildcats in the first half.
But football is a game that is played for four quarters, and Tennessee looked like the ever-improving team that has been on display since that win over Mississippi State in the second half.
Behind a gutsy defensive stand and an impressive showing from Jarrett Guarantano off of the bench , the Vols (5-5, 3-3 SEC) inched even closer to bowl eligibility with a 17-13 win over Kentucky (4-5, 2-5 SEC) on a chilly night at Kroger Field.
Here are the takeaways:
(Bituli's) Last Stand
With two chances remaining to reach six wins, it might seem a bit dramatic to say Tennessee’s season hung in the balance on Kentucky’s fourth-and-goal from the three yard line with two minutes remaining.
Had the Wildcats paid off of Ty Chandler’s fumble at midfield just a few plays before with a touchdown, there would still be growing to do for this Tennessee team.
There is still growing to do, but the goal line stand lead by senior linebacker Daniel Bituli’s game-saving tackle of Kentucky quarterback Lynn Bowden Jr. on an option play is just another sign of how far the Vols have come since week one of the season.
“It feels great,” Bituli said of getting the stop. “Anytime we can get a win against a good SEC team like (Kentucky), really brings us a lot of confidence. At the end of the day, they can move down the field as much as possible, but our goal is to keep them from getting into that endzone and we did that.”
Bituli had 19 total tackles on the night, but none was more important than his last one. He wore his emotions on his sleeve as he trotted off of Kroger Field to celebrate with the rest of the defense.
“Football is my first love,” Bituli said. “I’m very passionate about this game. I love it. Everytime I go out there, I’m going to play my heart out and y’all saw that at the end of the game.”
Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt was pleased with his senior leader’s performance on the defensive side, which helped the Vols slow down a Kentucky rushing attack in the second half that had ran for more than 185 yards on them in the first two quarters.
According to Pruitt, Bituli’s smarts and leadership qualities anchored the defense when they needed it most.
“Daniel (Bituli) is smart, he’s tough, he’s dependable, he loves Tennessee,” Pruitt said. “He’s instinctive. You want everybody on your team to be like Daniel Bituli. He’s a phenomenal leader.”
No one has taken more criticism on this Tennessee team than redshirt junior quarterback Jarrett Guarantano.
Earlier in the season, Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt said repeatedly that Guarantano would win them games, which he’s done, despite losing some, too.
Since the Vols loss to Georgia back on Oct. 5, Guarantano has had to come off the bench three out of their last five games.
In three of those games, Guarantano helped the Vols to two wins, including Saturday night in Lexington.
After sitting out the last two weeks with back-to-back concussions, true freshman Brian Maurer finally got to start. After Tennessee’s offense struggled to move the ball in the first half though, the Vols fell behind 13-3.
At halftime Pruitt called on Guarantano again, and again he delivered.
“Going into halftime, I didn’t expect to play,” Guarantano said. “Coach Pruitt said that he wanted to give me a shot. I just wanted to go out there and execute for the team and go out there and get a win for us.”
Guarantano’s 115 yards and two touchdowns in the second half were big contributors, but his follow up of that goal line stand-a ten yard run on third-and-four to seal the game-was arguably his most important contribution.
“I didn’t care about my hand, I didn’t care about anything other than getting that first down for the team,” Guarantano said. “I knew that it was third-and-four and I needed to get some yardage. It was really a pass play but everybody was covered. I knew I had to get the first and finish the game.”
According to Pruitt, Guarantano’s ability to continue to come in and help his team when they need it most is a testimony to his maturity as a player.
“I think (Guarantano) is very mature,” Pruitt said. “He knows what we’re trying to do. I think he’s smart. He did a great job for us tonight.”
With the win, Tennessee needs just to win one of their last two against Missouri and Vanderbilt to reach a bowl game for the first time since 2016.
The Vols actually find themselves in the same spot they were in exactly a season ago coming off of a win against Kentucky.
A 24-7 win at Neyland Stadium last November put Tennessee at 5-5 overall, but two-straight losses to Missouri and Vanderbilt ended the Vols’ season at 5-7.
While Pruitt wants his team to relish in a hard-fought victory over a rival at a critical juncture in the season, he also doesn’t want them to repeat recent history.
“From the reality of it, we’re 5-5, which is exactly where we were this time last year,” Pruitt said. “We didn’t finish the way we wanted to finish, they know that. We’re going to enjoy this win tonight. We’re going back to Knoxville, try to get some guys healed up a little bit and start getting ready for Missouri.”
The Vols get a bye this week before traveling to Columbia, Missouri to face off against the Missouri Tigers on November 23 at Farout Field.