UT at Kentucky: Biggest game of the year

Marvin Westwestwords

Here we go again, another “biggest game of the year” for Tennessee football.

What we keep telling ourselves about significant improvement will slide back toward what used to be if the Volunteers lose at Kentucky. It could happen. UK isn’t super talented but UK is tough.

The Wildcats probably won’t be too scared. Nothing the Vols did against UAB was particularly intimidating. The defense was good enough. Bryce Thompson tied a school record with three interceptions.

The offensive line was unimpressive. Jarrett Guarantano got knocked down too often but did better with one hand than some do with two. The ground game was again modest or worse. Ty Chandler had one exciting run and totaled 85 yards rushing. Everybody else combined for 36.

Because the offense failed to answer when opportunity knocked, Brent Cimaglia kicked three field goals, one a personal record of 53 yards.

Interesting that Tennessee attracted only three penalty flags. Two cost a few inches. One was five yards. Jeremy Pruitt did not yell at even one official.

If the upcoming game is really meaningful to Tennessee, it is some degree of critical for the Wildcats. Based on 10 wins last season, there was talk that they had finally turned the proverbial corner from regular losers to winners. Alas, they are now 4-4 with a quarterback merry-go-round that rivals Tennessee.

Four Vols have played the position, some better than others, none near the championship level.

Kentucky has deployed three. Terry Wilson was lost to a knee injury. Transfer Sawyer Smith, MVP of the Dollar General Bowl while at Troy, has more interceptions than touchdown passes. He also has had injuries.

Wide receiver Lynn Bowden is not a skilled passer but he is one heck of a runner from the quarterback position. He gained 204 yards and two TDs in the rainy-night romp over Missouri.

Beware of Kentucky wideouts playing quarterback against Tennessee. One became a legend (Matt Roark, 2011, with ex-Vols Randy Sanders and Tee Martin helping the Wildcat run wild. They were coaches, not blockers).

Kentucky’s defense remains crusty. It has surrendered 24 points or less in 22 consecutive games, longest streak in the nation. The Wildcats are 4-1 at home this season. The lone loss was 29-21 to then No. 7 Florida back in September.

Summation: Kentucky, like Tennessee, needs two more victories to be little bowl eligible. Scouts are on edge. There are 39 bowls to fill.

Depending on how you see it, there were two intriguing scenes in the middle or off to the side of the Vol victory over UAB.

Whether you like Guarantano or not, whether you think he is good, average or below, he was the winning quarterback. Something else is not debatable. He has proven time after time that he is one tough dude.

He did it again. He suffered the fracture in his left hand in the South Carolina game. Doctors installed a screw or screws. He had good reason to opt out of the UAB game. He played because he felt he owed it to teammates and coaches.

He wore a cast and padded glove for protection. He reluctantly admitted there was constant pain.

Pain be damned, he answered the call and did the job as best he could. He got knocked down several times but he got up. He was sometimes late releasing the ball and he made another major mistake but he moved the team enough to win.

This guy has heart. No matter what happens in the closing three games, he doesn’t deserve another unkind word.

Thompson is the subject of my short sermon on second chances. He was a freshman all-American. He has pro potential. He landed in serious trouble in late August, arrested and charged with domestic assault after a noisy altercation with his girlfriend.

Pruitt did what he had to do – indefinite suspension. Pruitt repeated what he said before regarding violence toward women: “We’re not going to tolerate it.”

Pruitt said something else worthy of cheers: “We hold our student-athletes to a high standard.”

After that, everybody got quiet and waited for the process to begin and end. In court, Thompson’s girlfriend said she never felt scared during the argument. The misdemeanor domestic assault charge was dismissed.

Thompson said he learned a lesson. Pruitt said OK. Bryce was reinstated. He appeared in the Florida game and thereafter. Perhaps you noticed him on Saturday evening.

“Thankful for having this opportunity,” he said. “That is what I am. I am extremely grateful. I couldn’t thank the University of Tennessee and Coach Pruitt enough.”

Pruitt gained ground, too. He did not grasp any face masks. He was not penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct. He helped win the game.

Marvin West welcomes reader remarks or questions. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com

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