Saturday ended a forgettable streak for Kentucky. For the first time since 1984, the Wildcats won at Tennessee.
The Kentucky defense did the heavy lifting in the first half by forcing four turnovers, including two interceptions returned for touchdowns. Quarterback Terry Wilson and the offense then took over in the second half, giving the Wildcats’ their first complete performance of the season in a 34-7 win over the No. 17 Volunteers.
The victory is just Kentucky’s third in the last 36 games against Tennessee. It snapped a 17-game losing streak in Knoxville.
The SEC Network broadcast began with talk that Wilson’s job was in jeopardy while Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano’s was not despite uneven performances from both this season.
By the end of the game, Tennessee was playing its third-string quarterback and Wilson had become the first Kentucky quarterback since Derrick Ramsey in 1977 to lead Kentucky to wins at Florida and Tennessee in his career.
Wilson’s stats do not jump off the page, but he completed 12 of 15 passes for 101 yards and one touchdown and gained 32 yards on eight carries. Wildcats receivers had a chance to catch all three of the incompletions.
Kentucky’s offense did not score a touchdown until the third quarter, but the early struggles reinforced the problems have more to do with the receivers than Wilson. Yes, Wilson lost needless yards by not throwing away the ball on a couple of early plays, but he does not need to be perfect when the defense is playing this well and the run game is working.
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Now Kentucky is among the nation’s leaders with nine interceptions across the last two games, including three interceptions returned for touchdowns.
Against Tennessee, much-maligned cornerback Kelvin Joseph started the scoring with an interception returned 41 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter. Six plays later, linebacker Jamin Davis returned an interception 85 yards for a touchdown. Tennessee’s next drive ended with an interception from safety Tyrell Ajian.
Those plays gave Kentucky nine interceptions in a span of 16 drives. In all of the 2019 season, 55 of 130 FBS teams, including the Wildcats, had nine or fewer interceptions all season. Only 21 teams had more interception return yards last season than Kentucky’s 215 in the last two games. Only six teams had more than three interceptions returned for touchdowns last season.
The news wasn’t as good for Tennessee.
Guarantano and J.T. Shrout combined to produce turnovers on four consecutive first-half possessions.
First, Guarantano fumbled in Kentucky territory when Ty Chandler bumped into his quarterback’s arm while Guarantano was winding up to throw. Clearly, there was some miscommunication.
On the next possession, Kelvin Joseph darted in front of Cedric Tillman on a quick-out route, intercepted Guarantano’s pass and returned it 41 yards for a touchdown.
Guarantano failed to see linebacker Jamin Davis sitting in zone coverage on the ensuing possession. Davis intercepted a pass intended for Jalin Hyatt and returned it 85 yards for a touchdown.
That pass sent Guarantano to the bench – for one possession. Backup J.T. Shrout’s first pass was intercepted by Tyrell Ajian, and Guarantano re-entered.
Guarantano finished 14-of-21 for 88 yards.
The Vols leaned heavily on their running game after the turnovers.
Eric Gray answered the bell. Gray rushed for a season-high 128 yards. He carried the ball on nine consecutive plays during Tennessee’s lone touchdown drive, gaining 57 yards during that stretch.
Despite trailing 17-7 at halftime, the Volunteers seemed poised for a comeback, having outgained Kentucky 203-75.
But Tennessee was unable to generate any sustained offense and raised the white flag early in the fourth quarter by putting in true freshman Harrison Bailey to replace Guarantano.