Incredible victory over Wildcats and clock

Marvin Westwestwords

Something like what happened in Lexington supposedly happened twice previously in football history but you can’t prove it by me.

Kentucky, formerly No. 18 in the country, could not contain Tennessee’s quick-strike air attack. The Volunteer defense tried and tried but could not stop the Wildcats’ relentless muscle machine.

Kentucky was stronger. Tennessee made mistakes. The Wildcats ran 99 plays, gained 612 yards and 35 first downs, scored six touchdowns and never punted.

Tennessee looked two notches smarter. Hendon Hooker played bombs-away (15 of 20, 316 yards, four TDs), starting with the very first play, a quick screen to JaVonta Payton, two blocks, one missed tackle and a 75-yard dash. Elapsed time: 11 seconds.

On the fourth offensive play, Kentucky got caught with a linebacker trying to cover Velus Jones. He fled the scene and Hooker threw perfectly, 72 yards, touchdown.

Cedric Tillman and Jacob Warren caught other scoring passes. Jalin Hyatt had a big one for the taking but stumbled making the catch and staggered out of bounds after a gain of 41.

Jabari Small delivered a nifty 37-yard touchdown run. Alonte Taylor said Tennessee’s defense played very poorly but he jumped a route and stunned Kroger Field customers with a 56-yard pick six. Chase McGrath kicked a field goal and six extra points.

There were five lead changes. Kentucky kept fighting back. Tennessee refused to fold. The defense was saved from complete exhaustion by commercial breaks and a few timely leg cramps. Wildcats had similar afflictions.

Time of possession was a joke – 46:08 to 13:52. As I recall reading somewhere, only two other teams have had the ball 45 minutes. Kentucky is first to do it and lose.

This was a signature victory for Josh Heupel, on the road against a ranked foe. Don’t rename a street yet but this team is fun to watch. Vols play really hard.

In a massive understatement, Heupel said it was a “unique” game. Incredible would have been a better word.

The coach praised his players.

“Their energy, their focus, it never wavered.”

Heupel was pleased that they joined traveling fans in celebration.

“They were fired up.”

He said the energy in the postgame locker room was awesome.

“It was a dance party, man. It was just the way it should be after a big win.”

Some surprising things preceded that. With the score tied at 21, Tennessee gained possession at its 39 with 16 seconds remaining in the half. Common practice is to run out the clock.

Heupel saw an opportunity. Three Hooker sideline throws to Tillman, excellent execution, gained 35 yards with two seconds to spare. McGrath hit the field goal.

“I love Coach’s mentality,” said Jones. “He is going to go for it.”

The Vols went for it most of the second half without Small and Tiyon Evans, top running backs. Freshman Jaylen Wright, who hadn’t appeared since the Missouri game, was a surprisingly good “next man up.”

Kentucky’s Wan’Dale Robinson caught 13 passes for 160 yards and one touchdown. Vols never made his acquaintance. Hooker and Wright had a run-into-each-other fumble. You can guess who made that mistake.

Tennessee had a prime opportunity, second down at the UK 5, to wrap up the decision late in the fourth quarter. It was squandered.

Before that, Byron Young had two sacks that took away 22 yards. After that, Tyler Baron got after UK quarterback Will Levis and didn’t get penalized for a hand on the mask.

That’s when Mark Stoops did his best to lose the game. The UK coach saw the incident, considered it an obvious violation and didn’t see a flag. He blew a gasket, drew a penalty for unsportsmanlike commentary and put his team in an unfathomable fourth-and-24.

Game over? The Vols rescued Stoops. The secondary lined up too deep. There was a fractured assignment. Levis took advantage with a 28-yard completion. First down!

Amazing, absolutely amazing.

The coach did not alibi for his outburst: “No excuse. I can’t do that. I can’t put that on our team in that situation. Thank God. it bailed me out.”

It looked exactly like the Vols had found a new way to come close. With a minute to go, three points ahead, they seemed determined to seize defeat from the jaws of victory.

Strange that the same weary defense, the one we thought was just hanging on, made the winning plays a few seconds later. Coordinator Tim Banks called for blitz pressure. Four times Levis felt the heat and threw incomplete.

Parting thoughts:

First-play touchdown? Peyton Manning and Joey Kent connected for 80 yards against Alabama in 1995.

Solid system? Hooker was asked if the Vols can count on winning with tempo, so few plays and so little time of possession.

“If we’re playing efficiently, playing smart and executing our assignments, then yes sir, we sure can.”

Tennessee snapped an 11-game losing streak against ranked opponents, going back to Jeremy Pruitt’s unexpected victory over No. 12 Kentucky in 2018.

Tennessee is one victory short of bowl eligibility. There may be a delay. Georgia is in the way.

Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is

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