Nobody said it would be easy and it certainly wasn’t but some good things happened at Kentucky.
- Tennessee bounced back from the disappointment at Alabama.
- Tennessee won a road game. It never trailed. The Vols had the ball at the end instead of leaving the heavy lifting to the defense.
- Joe Milton managed the clock as if he knew precisely what he was doing. In his spare time, he had his best statistical game. Chalk one up for Chas Nimrod. He scored the first TD of his career on a 39-yard pass from Milton.
- Both Jaylen Wright and Dylan Sampson had many more rushing yards than Wildcat star Ray Davis, heralded No. 1 ground-gainer in the Southeastern Conference. Sampson had winning plays in the fourth quarter.
- There were hints that highly regarded Dont’e Thornton is alive. He moved from slot to wideout and contributed.
- Tennessee did not fail on a fourth-down play – not even once. The Vols lined up for one and the Wildcats jumped offsides.
- Tennessee covered the betting line, a bonus reason for joy in Big Orange Country.
- For the 36th time in the past 39 meetings between UT and UK, the Vols came out on the high side of the score – 33-27. Many past games were also close but the Wildcats almost always found a way to lose.
The last time a ranked Tennessee team lost in Lexington was 1959.
Some things were not so good. Tennessee was penalized nine times. Cost was 70 yards. Young linebacker Elijah Herring was again flagged for clapping his hands as the center was about to snap the football. The same violation, called “disconcerting signal,” happened in the Alabama game.
Somebody in authority please explain the rule to Elijah.
Most points but not very good: Tennessee settled for four Charles Campbell field goals instead of touchdowns. OK, counting his three extra points, Campbell was a 15-point Volunteer.
Kentucky quarterback Devin Leary completed hall of fame numbers, 28 of 39 for 372 yards and two touchdowns. He was previously one of the worst in the SEC. Kentucky was 105th nationally in passing yards per game. The Vols fixed that. Dane Key caught seven for 113 and a TD.
Some fans unkindly said the season-ending shoulder injury to senior Kamal Haden was a plus instead of a minus. I thought he was the best corner, even though he didn’t always look back for the ball.
Leary made me look smarter than I am. He chewed up the softer alignment.
I don’t know what 372 yards say about the allegedly improved Tennessee pass defense. I do know the Vols produced very little pass rush. If the Wildcats were guilty of holding as was Alabama, Heupel will send video to the SEC office. Executives will smile. He never sends packages postage due.
I do know what the run defense did to Ray Davis. It limited him to 42 yards on 16 carries. There were enough additional stops to get out of Lexington alive. The biggest was on third and 10 in the red zone with 4:24 left to play.
Kentucky picked up eight on a sideline pass to the 10. The Wildcats were nine points behind. They needed two scores. They opted for the field goal to keep hopes alive. They never got the ball back to try for the winning TD.
Kentucky’s defense couldn’t stop Tennessee’s ground attack. It gained 248. That was notable. UK had been the No. 2 rushing defense in the SEC, allowing only 95.7 yards per game.
Wright had a 52-yard touchdown and totaled 120 on just 11 carries. He got nicked late in the half (let us hope that was all it was) and left the closing act to Sampson.
In Heupel’s words “D-Samp was dynamic in the second half in particular, down the stretch. Did a good job making people miss, reading blocks and running extremely hard, running through tackles.”
Dylan produced some big plays out of absolutely nothing and finished with 115 yards and a touchdown on 22 touches. Those numbers do not begin to explain how good he looked when it really mattered.
Milton might be maturing as a quarterback. He was 18-of-21 for 228 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. He has reached a level of improvement where fans take his good plays for granted and criticize occasional errors.
Milton made a big-time fourth-quarter run that helped seal the victory. Squirrel White, of all people, got in the way of pursuit, was run over but got credit for a key block.
Heupel seems to really appreciate this team.
“Didn’t play perfectly but played hard. A lot of things we can do better (he mentioned penalties and pass defense). We talked about having to win the fourth quarter. Felt like we won it.”
Heupel said the Vols really do believe in and play for each other.
“I’ll go with these guys anywhere, man. I love competing with these guys – truly do.”
Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is email@example.com.