KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WDRB) – Football, in college as in the NFL these days, comes down to octane. Tennessee has it – maybe more of it than anybody. Kentucky, on Saturday night in front of more than 100,000 delirious fans in Neyland Stadium, did not.
This was a prime-time national matchup of marquee quarterbacks, Hendon Hooker of Tennessee and Will Levis of Kentucky. Hooker is positioning himself to win the Heisman Trophy. Levis has been touted as perhaps the first quarterback to be taken in the 2023 NFL Draft.
On Saturday, Hooker was the better player, Tennessee coach Josh Heupel the more creative coach and the No. 3-ranked Volunteers every bit a national contender, rolling up the Wildcats 44-6.
One of the many painful aspects of Saturday’s shellacking for Kentucky is that Tennessee is having the kind of season Kentucky had hoped for.
Many in the preseason had the Wildcats pegged as a 10-game winner, and SEC coaches picked them as runner up to Georgia in the SEC Eastern Division.
But faster than Tennessee can run three plays, the Vols have run a jet sweep around Kentucky’s entrenched position and rearranged the SEC East pecking order, perhaps for the foreseeable future.
When Tennessee is rolling, it resembles Kentucky basketball when it is rolling. They have star power, old money, and instant national credibility. Game Day has been in Knoxville twice this season. The Vols have the nation’s top offense and have scored better than 30 in each of their past 11 games. And they have that Neyland crowd, which is electric.
They’re 8-0 for the first time since their 1998 championship season.
And Kentucky? You can pencil the Wildcats in at 8-4 – respectable against the program’s historical backdrop, but pedestrian when compared with expectations, and with hopes fueled by having a quarterback and running back of national note. And that’s provided they can beat an improving Louisville team at the end of the year.
It's the kind of loss that should lead to questions about what Kentucky's identity is going to be. The Mark Stoops formula for success has been outstanding for Kentucky. But a time has come when, as much as you have to have great defense and a running game, you've got to be able to keep up in a shootout, too.
Stoops had few answers afterward.
"Got beat by a better football team," he said. "They beat us in virtually every area -- outcoached us, outplayed us. Very good football team. You've got to come in here and play as good as you can in every area to expect to compete with a team that's top 3 in the country and we didn't do that tonight. I felt like, you know, there were moments early, where you've got to capitalize. You've got to convert. We had some possessions in the first half as we were hanging around fighting, in a one-possession game, where we had a conversion on third down there, we had an opportunity to make a play and didn't. And later, we drive it down again and have an opportunity to cut it to maybe a 6-point game or whatever it was at that point and throw the interception with a heck of a play by them. And you can't do that with a team that is as explosive as they are offensively. You keep on, you know, if you don't possess the ball, if you don't score points, it's hard to hold on. And eventually it unraveled on us and you saw that result."
If you don't score points, it's hard to hold on. That's the quote that sums it up the best. Tennessee did what it does. A couple of times, it scored on deep throws that Kentucky knew was coming, had practiced against, but the Vols executed. That happens. If you can't answer back, that can't happen, not if you expect to hang onto track position in the SEC.
"When you're playing them, you've got to possess the ball and score," Stoops said. "And I say possess the ball, but that's who we are anyway, you know what I mean? That's just, it's not like, a different strategy. We're methodical. We're a huddle team. We need to do what we do, and that's trying to run the ball and be efficient in the play action game and keep them off balance, and then score. I think early, when we had some long drives but not capitalizing, not keeping pace with them, it can get away from you quickly.
Kentucky came into the game second in the SEC behind Georgia in total defense, giving up 295 yards per game. Tennessee had just about that by halftime.
Hooker for the game completed 17 of 25 passes for 245 yards and 3 touchdowns. Levis was 16 of 27 for 98 yards and 3 interceptions without a touchdown.
Chris Rodriguez piled up only 64 rushing yards against the nation’s eighth-best run defense. The Wildcats were predictable, and once Tennessee sprinted to an early lead, they didn’t have the gear to catch up.
"Predictable pass is not a good situation for us, as you know, we've been struggling with it," Stoops said. "We're trying to protect at times but, you know, really, it wasn't just protection. We didn't run it effectively enough. We weren't good in the play-action game. We weren't good in the screen game. We weren't weren't good in any area. When you put up (looking at stat sheet) -- you have no chance to beat Tennessee, if you you know, have 200 yards of offense, and not enough first downs."
The question for Kentucky isn't just whether this was a bad game with a couple of missed chances early. It's whether they're built to play these kinds of games in a league where these kinds of games are required to achieve at the highest level. The Wildcats clearly were uncomfortable with the way the game was being played. And Tennessee was playing with abandon.
The hope for Kentucky football this season was not more of the same, even if the same lately has been better than it was not long ago.
It also wasn’t long ago – four weeks ago, in fact – that UK was ranked No. 7 in the nation and Saturday’s date was scheduled as a meeting to determine the lead challenger to Georgia in the SEC East.
But that matter was settled before Saturday, and smarting from a thorough thrashing in Knoxville, UK is left to once again reassesses its place in an SEC that looks to be powering up – and fueling up for more and more offense.
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