Tennessee dropped its second straight game Saturday, falling at home to Kentucky, 34-7. The win marked Kentucky’s first in Neyland Stadium since 1984 and ended a two-game Tennessee win streak in the series.
Tennessee was haunted by costly turnovers as Kentucky took control of the game in the second quarter and didn’t look back.
Here are four takeaways.
The roller coaster ride that is Jarrett Guarantano hit perhaps its lowest moment Saturday afternoon.
Kentucky’s offense entered Saturday’s game limited. Its defense helped pick up the slack with four first half takeaways including two defensive touchdowns.
First, Tennessee was inside Kentucky’s 25-yard line when a miscommunication between Eric Gray and Guarantano led to a Vols’ fumble.
The next drive, Guarantano tried to find Cedric Tillman on an out route but Kelvin Joseph jumped the route, intercepting it and returning it 41 yards for a touchdown.
Guarantano looked to have the offense settled on the following drive as the Vols quickly marched into scoring range, a catastrophic Guarantano mistake occurred again. Guarantano didn’t see linebacker Jamin Davis who intercepted his pass and returned it 85 yards for a touchdown.
“The one interception down the middle, my question is starting with the play, we should have thrown the check down,” head coach Jeremy Pruitt said. “We were running four verticals. They dropped in zone coverage and we should've thrown the check down but didn’t. We got a little greedy there. You have to take the check down.”
Guarantano was replaced by J.T. Shrout on the following drive and the mistakes continued as Shrout threw an interception of his own.
“I actually thought today from a physicality standpoint we played better offensively moving the football,” Pruitt said. “But four turnovers, you know, our defense did a nice job early in the game to give them good field position twice and we didn’t take advantage of it.”
Tennessee would catch a break as Justin Rigg dropped an easy touchdown, but the Wildcats were able to add a field goal, giving them a 17-point lead.
Guarantano would return after the interception but failed to get anything going the rest of the day. The redshirt-senior went 14-of-21 passing for 88 yards.
Harrison Bailey also saw reps in mop up duty.
Handing Kentucky a three touchdown lead was worse than even the obvious reasons. The big lead allowed Kentucky to lean on its ground game and milk the clock.
Another bad third quarter
Tennessee regained some momentum late in the first half thanks to a long touchdown drive, making the Wildcats halftime lead, 17-7.
It was the same halftime deficit Tennessee had a year ago when they put together a comeback win in the Commonwealth State.
A year ago, Tennessee opened the second half with a scoring drive. Saturday it went three-and-out in what started a very bad quarter for the Vols.
Kentucky had just 75 yards in the first half but went 76 yards on 11 plays on its opening drive of the half, capped off by a goal line fade to Allen Dailey.
“In the second half, offensively, I felt like they moved us and blocked us better,” Pruitt said. “We didn’t do as well playing man-to-man and they continued drives there.”
“They didn’t do nothing,” linebacker Henry To’o To’o said of Kentucky’s halftime changes. “They just ran the same offense we saw throughout the week, so nothing really changed. We just didn’t execute on defense.”
Penalties would cost Tennessee on its two other drives with chop blocks and unsportsmanlike conduct calls backing the Vols up on each drive.
Tennessee’s offense would tally just 22 yards in the quarter as Kentucky added a field goal and took full control of the game.
Secondary struggles continue
Tennessee’s secondary was expected to be one of its main strengths entering the 2020 season. It had a below average first few weeks before a disappointing Saturday.
Kentucky’s passing stats don’t blow you away, totaling just 107 yards passing, even 43 yards under its season average.
Quarterback Terry Wilson threw it just 15 times but he completed 12 of them for 101 yards and a touchdown. One of his three incompletions was a dropped touchdown.
Wilson had easy completion after easy completion, consistently finding success on the slant route.
It was a continuation of what’s plagued the group all season as the Vols have struggled to struggle in the middle of the field, specifically at the nickel spot.
Tennessee will get tested there extensively next week when they face Alabama, who’s known for the pressure they put on the middle of team’s defenses in the passing game.
No fight from Tennessee
Perhaps the most inexcusable thing from Tennessee’s performance was the lack of fight they showed.
Since the Vols’ disastrous start to the 2019 season perhaps their most impressive feat was the fight they had continually shown in wins and losses alike.
None of that was on display Saturday as the Vols showed no energy or fight in the second half.
Tennessee looked like a completely different team after the two pick sixes and they never recovered Saturday.
Kentucky completely controlled every facet of the second half, out gaining Tennessee 220 to 84.
“Defensively to me, there’s a point in time where you say it don’t matter,” Pruitt said. “It don’t matter where the other team gets the ball. It don’t matter what the scoreboard is. It don’t matter. We’re going to play at a level defensively and that’s it. It don’t matter if we play four quarters or they tell us to play until midnight. This is how we;re going to play. That’s a mindset and we’re not there yet.”
Tennessee will return to action next week when it hosts Alabama to Neyland Stadium. Kick off is set for 3:30 p.m. ET and will be broadcast on SEC Network.