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Kentucky @ Tennessee: Rocky Top Preview

Twenty-five straight losses.  OK, I got that out of the way.

Today, though, regardless of The Streak, the Kentucky Wildcats will be playing to salvage a turnover ravaged season of disappointment.  Sitting at 6-5 (3-5 SEC) and looking for a bowl game within the boundaries of Florida (a win would probably get the 'Cats a Gator Bowl invite), as well as seven wins (that would make five years in a row the 'Cats have won at least seven games), UK hopes to build on its modest two-game winning streak, and end the season on a positive note after losing five of six games in the middle portion of the season. 

The home-standing Tennessee Volunteers (5-6, 2-5), likewise, are amped and motivated after winning three-straight games, reinvigorating the fan base with now realistic bowl game talk.

So, both teams are fighting for more than just pride.  Both teams need the win ... which team will want it the most, though, is the real question.  Which team will value ball possession?  Which team will minimize mistakes?  And the everlasting question; can UK's run defense come close to slowing down the UT running game?

No, I don't have any answers for you, but today at 12:21 EST on the Big Blue Sports Network, the truth will be revealed.  For a closer look at the Volunteer personnel, some statistics of interest, as well as some thoughts from UK head coach Joker Phillips, follow me after the jump. 

Runnin' Down the Vols

Over the last three games, new Tennessee starting quarterback Tyler Bray (6-6, 210 lb true freshman) has almost single-handedly reversed the fortunes for the Volunteers this season.  Prior to Bray becoming the starter, the boys in orange were suffering through a 2-6 season, and looking for a reason to get out of bed in the morning.  But since the youngster took over the reins of the quarterback position three games ago, he has propelled the Vols into a fighting chance at the seemingly impossible: Becoming bowl eligible. 

(One caveat that might become relevant on this day: UT quarterbacks have been sacked 35 times on the season, Bray four times in the last three games).

In a 50-14 win over Memphis, a 52-14 win over Ole Miss, and a 24-10 win over Vanderbilt, Bray has combined to complete 53 of 94 passes for 880 yards, 10 touchdowns (two vs. Vandy, three vs. Ole Miss, and five vs. Memphis)and two interceptions.  Granted, the three teams Tennessee have beaten during their winning streak are not exactly an accumulation of college football royalty, but the domination they have shown has been impressive.  Derek Dooley's team is suddenly moving the ball with up and down the field with relative ease, and the Volunteer defense has stiffened significantly -- The Vols have averaged 42 points per game during the three-game streak; on the season they average 27.3 points per contest: UT has given up only 12.6 points per game over the last three; on the season Tennessee gives up 25.6 points per contest

The always impressive UT receiving corp has thrived under Bray, with senior wide receivers Denarius Moore and Gerald Jones being the primary beneficiaries of the improved quarterback play.  Over the last three games, Moore (6-1, 194 lbs) has caught 12 passes for 222 yards (18.5 yards per reception) and three touchdowns, Jones (6-0, 195 lbs) has caught 15 balls for 194 yards (12.9 ypr) and one touchdown.  Freshman speedster Justin Hunter has emerged as a true deep threat under Bray, catching five passes for an astonishing 160 yards (32.0 ypr) and three touchdowns.

Kentucky's run defense will be tested by yet another outstanding running back in the form of Tauren Poole (5-11, 213 lb junior).  On the year, Poole has rushed for 935 yards on 176 carries (5.3 yards per carry) and 10 touchdowns, and caught 17 passes for 155 yards and one TD.  Poole is a physical, down hill runner ... just the type of back UK has had trouble with since Jesus was preachin' in Omaha.  Poole, rather than Bray, is probably the player UK head coach Joker Phillips is most concerned with heading into the contest.  If Poole gets off for 150+ yards, the 'Cats will be in for a long day.

Sophomore running back David Oku (5-10, 195 lbs) will backup Poole.  On the year, Oku has rushed 42 times for 174 yards and one touchdown, and caught seven passes for 79 yards (11.3 ypr).  He also returns kicks -- 15 returns for a 19.5 average (also returning kicks for the Vols is freshman Eric Gordon -- on the year, Gordon has returned 14 kicks for a 23.1 average).  In addition to Oku; in nine games this season, freshman running back Rajion Neal has shown promise, rushing 37 times for 169 yards (4.6 ypc).  He's also caught six passes for 93 yards (15.5 ypr). 

Defensively, the Vols boast several outstanding individual performers, even though their body of work as a unit is not overly impressive -- Example: The Vols "D" gives up an average of 381.2 yards per game and 25.6 points.  Like UK, the Vols give up too many ground yards (155.8 per game), which is a deadly sin in the SEC.  But, defying the numbers, UT linebacker Nick Reveiz (5-10, 224 lb senior) has put together a nice season with 86 tackles, 6.0 tackles for loss, and two interceptions.  And, defensive ends Chris Walker (6-3, 245 lb senior) and Malik Jackson (6-5, 265 lb junior) have both excelled; Walker with 39 tackles, 5.0 tackles for loss, two sacks and six QB hurries; Jackson with a team-leading 10.0 tackles for loss and 5.0 sacks.

Also, Volunteer defensive backs Janzen Jackson (6-0, 187 lb sophomore) and Prentiss Waggner (6-2, 181 lb sophomore) have combined for eight interceptions (four apiece) on the season, something UK quarterback Mike Hartline would be smart to remember on this day.  Also, Jackson is third on the team in tackles with 54, to go along with one sack. 

Tennessee Statistically Speaking

UT scores 27.3 points per game: UT opp's score 25.6 ppg.

UT rushes for 119.7 ypg: UT opp's rush for 155.8 ypg.

UT total offense, 360.0 ypg: UT opp's total offense. 381.2 ypg.

UT 3rd down conversion, 37%: UT opp's 3rd down conversion, 39%.

UT Red Zone scores, 24-31 (77%): UT opp's RZ scores, 32-41 (78%).

UT RZ touchdowns, 15-31 (48%): UT opp's RZ touchdowns, 22-41 (54%).

UT sacks by, 21: UT opp's sacks by, 35.

UT turnover margin: +4.

Second half scoring: UT 113, opp's 168.

Joker's Thoughts

Joker Phillips shares his thoughts on the game with Cat Scratches, the outstanding blog.  Here is a sampling of what Phillips had to say about today's contest (go here for the entire interview):

One thing UK must do Saturday: Get off to a fast start -- "We've got to play fast from the first snap.  If we play like we've been playing in the first half, we could be down too much and not be able to fight back."

Another thing UK must do Saturday: Hit the young quarterback early, slow down the hot UT passing game -- "We've got to try to disrupt their quarterback.  We've got to give him a lot of different looks and get in his face as often as we possibly can."

Key Matchup: Derrick Locke versus the UT run defense -- "Our running game opens up a lot with Derrick Locke.  There was a three game stretch where we weren't able to run the ball as efficiently with Locke out.  All that did was open up our passing game and a chance for Randall Cobb to run the ball in the Wildcat, because now you've got Derrick Locke coming across in the speed sweep and we have the ability to hand the ball to him.  That takes another guy out of our defensive front and it allows Randall to run the ball in the Wildcat formation."

Playing on the emotions of The Streak -- "Football is a game of emotions.  You have to play on them.  You have to use anything you possibly can to get emotionally involved in the game.  That's (The Steak) one of the things we've got to use to get emotionally into this game."

My Thoughts

First team to 40 wins.

Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats, CEASE THE STREAK!