For the first time this season, the Kentucky Wildcats failed to defend its home turf, losing 45-42 to rival Tennessee on Saturday night at Kroger Field.
The Kentucky defense simply had no answer for Tennessee’s quick-hitter offense that needed little time to put points on the board, scoring on its first two possessions - both 70-plus yard pass plays - despite having the ball just under six minutes in the opening half.
While the Wildcats dominated the time of possession, poor tackling, missed assignments in the secondary, and another interception from Will Levis, this time a pick six late in the third quarter, was too much to overcome as Kentucky drops its third straight after starting the year 6-0.
Trailing 45-42 late in the game, Kentucky had one final possession, driving to midfield with 1:05 remaining and facing a 4th and 24 situation after Stoops was hit with a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Levis connected with Izayah Cummings for the first down. The Wildcats faced another 4th down situation (4th and 10 at the 38-yard line) with 36 seconds left but Levis threw an incomplete pass on Kentucky’s 99th play of the night, a school record.
If you missed the live action, here are the four things you need to know from Kentucky’s third loss of the season.
Defense is a Mess
Brad White’s defense may have hit a season low, as poor execution allowed the Vols to score on a pair of touchdown passes on its first two possessions - a 75-yard pass play on the first play of the game that was followed by a 72-yard touchdown pass on third down on the Vols second possession. Tennessee put up 24 points and 279 yards in total offense in the first half.
Things really got ugly to close the half as Kentucky failed to convert on 4th down and the Vols quickly completed three passes for 35 yards in less than 16 seconds that resulted in a 43-yard field goal to take a 24-21 halftime advantage.
Holding on to a 45-42 lead with just under six minutes remaining, Tennessee drove into the red zone but was stopped by the Wildcats’ defense as the Vols had to settle for a field goal attempt that missed wide right. That sequence proved to be one of the few highlights of the night for a defense that needs a major overhaul to finish the season.
Will Levis found his Swagger
Levis returned from a horrible Mississippi State game to lead a much improved offense that converted often on third down and gave the Wildcats numerous scoring opportunities.
The 6-foot-3 quarterback threw a touchdown pass to tight ends Izayah Cummings and Justin Rigg and also proved to be a punishing runner, taking hits, jumping over defenders, and sacrificing his body to reach for the first down marker. Levis threw for over 340 yards with three passing touchdowns to go with two running scores.
Levis also looked better in the pocket, making high percentage throws early before finding Wan’Dale Robinson for some big gains to spread out the Tennessee defense. Levis still made a few bad throws, but did more than enough as a runner to keep the offense moving and gained some much needed confidence in the passing game.
Improved Running Game
After watching the run game disappear the past two weeks, Chris Rodriguez and Kavosiey Smoke both looked energized and picked up some positive yardage against the Vols defense. In addition, the offensive line bounced back after some tough draws the past couple of weeks and did a nice job in opening holes and providing protection for Levis.
Despite battling an undisclosed injury, Rodriguez looks closer to form on Saturday and could return among the conference leaders in rushing if he can put together some big-time performances against Vanderbilt, New Mexico State and Louisville to close the regular season.
Liam’s Bag of Tricks
Offensive Coordinator Liam Coen has has great success with some “scripted offense” to start games and did all he could to keep the chains moving in the loss. In fact, Kentucky looked more confident offensively against the Vols and found a good balance of passing yards and running plays to stay in the game.
Trailing 14-7 in the second quarter, Coen turned his bag of tricks that included a trick play that featured Chauncy Magwood, a former high school quarterback, throwing a 15-yard to Levis, who score a player later on a 8-yard run after jumping over two defenders.
Coen broke out some razzle-dazzle earlier in the year in the loss to Georgia and has been creative in trying to find more balance in his first year with the Wildcats.
No. 18th ranked Kentucky is now 6-4 overall and play at Vanderbilt next week to close out the conference season.