A second-quarter meltdown at quarterback sent Tennessee on its way to a miserable afternoon at Neyland Stadium. The Vols lost to Kentucky at home for the first time since 1984 and suffered their worst loss to the Wildcats since 1935 in 34-7 loss on Saturday afternoon. Starting quarterback Jarrett Guarantano threw a pair of pick-sixes on back-to-back possessions and backup J.T. Shrout threw a third as Kentucky accepted the gifts from the hosts to notch an historic win.
Kelvin Joseph and Jamin Davis did the damage for Kentucky in returning Guarantano’s interceptions for 41- and 85-yard touchdowns, and after Tennessee mustered up a touchdown drive to keep hope alive of a comeback, the Wildcats woke up on offense in the second half to turn the game into a rout, Kentucky’s biggest win in this series since a 27-0 victory 55 years ago.
Kentucky turned its first three drives of the second half into 17 points by getting the run game going and peppering the middle of the field with slants and passes to the tight end, and led by 27 points early in the fourth quarter.
At that point the Vols turned to thei third third quarterback of the game, touted freshman Harrison Bailey, and his 24-yard pass to fellow freshman Malachi Wideman and runs of 11 and 10 yards by freshman running back Jabari Small got Tennessee to the 10-yard line, but the drive ended on downs.
The glimpse of the future with Tennessee playing several freshmen on offense and defense can be the only bright spot on this brutal afternoon for Tennessee.
The Vols forced a three-and-out to open the game and took their first two drives into scoring range, but came away empty. On Tennessee’s first series, a first-down lost-yardage run and third-down sack when Kentucky edge rusher Boogie Watson got around Darnell Wright at right tackle to sack Guarantano took the Vols out of field-goal range. On the next possession, the Vols fumbled it away when running back Ty Chandler hit Guarantano’s arm as he went to throw a quick pass.
Tennessee had a first-and-10 at the 30 and second-and-2 at the 22 (after a fourth-down conversion), but the futility on offense was just getting started and got considerably worse.
Guarantano threw late to the wide side of the field for Cedric Tillman and Kentucky cornerback Kelvin Joseph, a transfer from LSU, intercepted it and took it back 41 yards for the game’s first touchdown.
The Vols responded with a great drive deep into Kentucky territory with Guarantano hitting Velus Jones Jr. for a 25-yard gain and Eric Gray, who finished with 128 yards on 24 carries, eating up yards on the ground and as a receiver, but Tennessee’s maligned fifth-year senior quarterback forced a throw for Jalin Hyatt into zone coverage, and Kentucky linebacker Jamin Davis gladly accepted the gift and raced 85 yards to make it 14-0.
Shrout got a look on Tennessee’s next series, but a hopeless throw for Josh Palmer was picked by Tyrell Ajian. Even with the possession starting at Tennessee’s 37, the Wildcats couldn’t score a touchdown. Tight end Keaton Upshaw eluded Tennessee safety Trevon Flowers, but dropped a would-be touchdown pass and the visitors had to settle for a 30-yard field goal by Matt Ruffalo to make it 17-0 with 6:18 left before halftime.
Tennessee finally got a response on offense thanks to the hard-running Gray and its offensive line. The Vols converted a fourth-and-1 at their own 34 with a Chandler run and chewed up yards on the ground on the rest of the 14-play touchdown drive. On the 12th run of the possession, Chandler powered through two defenders at the goal line for a 4-yard touchdown after Gray rolled up 62 yards on nine straight runs by the sophomore.
Tennessee’s defense was dominant in the first half in allowing just 75 yards and four first downs and holding Kentucky to just 1 of 6 on third downs, but it didn’t matter with the meltdown at the quarterback position gifting the Wildcats all of their points.
The second half was a different story as Tennessee could muster just 22 yards in the third quarter (compared to Kentucky’s 110) and finished with fewer than 100 yards while the Wildcats didn’t punt on any of its four second-half possessions.