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Tennessee Vols Game Grades: Kentucky Edition

It was a nightmare in Neyland on Saturday night for the Wildcats. See how each Vols unit graded out in Vols Game Grades Kentucky edition.
Vols Game Grades Kentucky

Saturday night was nothing short of a nightmare in Neyland Stadium for the Kentucky Wildcats. Hoping to ruin Tennessee’s best season in two decades, as the Vols have done to the Wildcats in two of the past four seasons, Kentucky was left with nothing but bruises and questions after getting pushed around all night.

Tennessee continued its surprising campaign and, even more, looked to be getting even better. The story on Saturday night was, unquestionably, the Vols’ defensive performance.

Tennessee Vols Game Grades Kentucky Edition

Offense: B+

Seven games into the season, Kentucky’s defense was ranked second overall in the Southeastern Conference and had not given up more than 24 points to any opponent. Tennessee gashed the Kentucky defense for 422 yards, including a physically dominating rushing attack that gained 177 yards on the ground. The scary part about Saturday’s game is that Tennessee’s offense slowed down the pace of play during the second half — Tennessee only ran 65 total plays. For the first time in the Josh Heupel era, the Vols’ offense played complementary ball to the Vols’ defense.

Offensive Stat of the Game:  Tennessee 4.4 yards per carry rushing

Quarterback: B+

Hendon Hooker continues his Heisman campaign. Hooker did a nice job of managing the game on Saturday. He wasn’t asked to do a whole lot, and while his 245 total passing yards were pedestrian by his standards, he still managed 3 passing touchdowns (plus an additional rushing touchdown) and was 19-25 (76%). Two things Hooker will notice on the game film were two errant throws – one woefully short – and a tendency to leave the pocket a little early on Saturday night.

Running Backs: A-

Jabari Small and Jaylen Wright set a physical tone for the run game all night long. The Vols rushed the ball 40 times on Saturday, absolutely wearing down the Kentucky front seven. Small and Wright had 28 of those carries, with Hooker adding 10 – about half of those on designed run calls. When Heupel’s offense is running well, it’s an offense predicated on running effectively. The philosophy is actually more akin to a triple-option offense than an air-raid offense. That’s why teams that have had success against Mississippi State this season (LSU and Kentucky) have failed to stop the Vols’ offense. It’s because Small, Wright, and the offensive line are able to establish a physical running game.

Princeton Fant‘s versatility, including his development as a legitimate short-yardage rushing option, is another bright spot for the Vols. Fant now has four rushing touchdowns on the season. He is also one of eight Vols that are averaging over 4 yards per carry on the season.

Tennessee’s rushing success cannot be overstated as part of their success this season.

Receivers: A-

Kentucky was coming off of a bye week, so it was flummoxing that Kentucky’s defense left Jalin Hyatt completely uncovered twice. Hyatt, who set the Tennessee single-season touchdown record on Saturday, made the Wildcats pay for their transgressions both times.  In addition to Hyatt’s five receptions, Bru McCoy added six receptions for 54 yards and provided another physically dominating performance. Hyatt’s ability to take the top off of a defense and McCoy’s physical possession-reception style are other reasons why defenses are having a hard time stopping the Vols’ offense.

Cedric Tillman returned on Saturday and had four receptions for 22 yards. Heupel stated in the post-game press conference that Tillman was on a pitch count. Look for Tillman to be more active in the deep middle of the field against future opponents.

Offensive Line: B

The Vols’ offensive line continues to be the surprise performer of the 2022 season. The rushing performance was detailed with the running backs’ grades, and the offensive line deserves credit for punishing the Kentucky defense in the run game. There was some breakdown in pass protection, however. Hooker was sacked twice, although one was probably on him, and Tennessee’s front five gave up three tackles-for-loss (TFLs). They weren’t as dominant in short-yardage situations as you’d like, although Tennessee was able to convert both fourth downs with short-yardage runs.

It goes without saying, they’ll need to be better against Georgia.

Defense: A

Saturday was easily the best game for Tim Banks’ defensive squad in his two seasons in Knoxville. The numbers are gaudy — Kentucky’s potential NFL First Round draft pick quarterback Will Levis only had 98 yards passing with a paltry 3.8 yards per completion, the Vols had three interceptions, and Kentucky only mustered 107 total rushing yards, including 50 on the last drive of the game, with the game well out of hand. Chris Rodriguez, All-SEC and All-American candidate, was held in check, with 15 carries for 64 yards.

It was truly a nightmare for the Kentucky offense Saturday night. With two weeks to prepare for their biggest game of the second half of their season, they were absolutely dominated in every phase and by every position unit. Kentucky’s offense looked like a trick-or-treater whose scary mask was pulled off to reveal a harmless child. Tennessee’s defense checked off all the things they knew they’d have to do on Saturday.

Defensive Stat of the Game: Kentucky 2-for-13 on 3rd Down Conversions. 

Defensive Line: A

Omari Thomas continues to be a wrecking ball on the interior of Tennessee’s defensive line. Da’Jon Terry had his best game as a Vol on the inside as well. Both Thomas and Terry had one sack and one TFL each. But more importantly, they absolutely wrecked Kentucky’s interior linemen all night. Byron Young added four tackles, 1.5 sacks, and 1.5 TFLs from the end position as well.

Linebackers: A+

Tennessee’s linebackers were all over the field on Saturday night. Juwan Mitchell had his best game of the year and finally looks healthy after two seasons in Knoxville, with eight tackles and a red zone interception with a 48-yard return. Jeremy Banks played his normal madman style of defense and finished with six tackles on the night. And Aaron Beasley added five tackles and one TFL. It’s curious that Kentucky didn’t utilize the tight ends and running backs more in their intermediate passing game — something Georgia will definitely do with their talented tight end group.

Either way, Tennessee’s linebackers played the game Kentucky brought, and they played it well.

Defensive Backs: A

The defensive backfield clapped back on Saturday night. The Vols had three interceptions against the much-heralded Levis, including one each by Brandon Turnage and Doneiko Slaughter. Slaughter also caused Mithcell’s interception with a crushing hit to a Kentucky receiver. Slaughter was hitting Kentucky players hard all night. Wesley Walker made his presence known often on Saturday night as well, with four tackles and 3 TFLs. Trevon Flowers continues his bid for All-SEC with six tackles and one pass defended (PDs).

As maligned as Tennessee’s secondary has been this season, they deserve the accolades from Saturday night.

Special Teams: B

A missed field goal and missed extra point from Chase McGrath put a damper on Dee Williams‘ excellent punt returning, and blocked extra point, a partially blocked punt, and three nice punts from Paxton Brooks, although Brooks’ kickoff out-of-bounds is a mistake he can’t afford to make in a tighter game.

Coaching: A

Heupel and his staff might be the best-performing staff in the SEC right now. They are certainly one of the top two. Tennessee has been focused on every single game this season, they are getting the most from players underutilized or discarded by other programs and coaches, and the defense continues to get better every week.

Looking Ahead

It’s here. Tennessee and Georiga will square off in Athens next Saturday with the eyes of the college football nation upon them. It’ll be a battle of two of the top three teams in the nation. With the CFP rankings coming out on Tuesday and Tennessee and Georgia almost assuredly two of the top three teams and potentially a one-versus-two matchup.

Can Tennessee continue exorcising its demons? Can they continue their surprising run through the SEC? Or will Kirby Smart and Georgia’s defense finally be the kryptonite to Heupel’s high-powered offense?

People have been betting against Tennessee in big games all season. And they’ve lost. It might be time to give the Vols the benefit of the doubt.

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