The Kentucky Football team’s defense entered the second half in Saturday night’s contest against the Tennessee Volunteers at Kroger Field leading 13-3 looking to keep the Vols in check.
Then the walls came crashing down from there.
Kentucky (4-5, 2-5 SEC) gave up 14 unanswered points in the third quarter as Tennessee (5-5, 3-3 SEC) defeated the Cats 17-13.
It all started when Vols’ quarterback Jarrett Guarantano entered the game in relief of the struggling Brian Maurer to start the second half. Guarantano would put on a show and go 7-of-8 passing on the night with 115 yards and two passing touchdowns.
The three-headed monster randem of Tennessee receivers in Jauan Jennings, Marquez Callaway and Josh Palmer aided Guarantano while burning the Cats’ secondary. On the Vols’ first drive of the second half, Guarantano hit Callaway on a 33-yard deep ball before finishing the drive with a 17-yard bullet to Callaway in the end zone.
“Callaway and Jennings, they're really good players. They're big, strong guys and it seemed like they came down with about every one of the 50/50 balls. You take that out and, again, I mean you can't, but I felt like the defense was really playing hard and we had a good plan and we got to win some one-on-ones,” UK head coach Mark Stoops said.
On the Vols’ next drive, Guarantano hit back-to-back 19-yard passes to Jennings and Callaway each, respectively, as they exploited the Cats’ secondary on those 50/50 balls. Palmer would put the finishing touches on that drive by putting the cherry on the cake with a contested, behind-the-shoulder, one footed 12-yard catch in the right corner to give the Vols a permanent 17-13 lead.
The trio combined for 11 catches, 207 yards and the two touchdowns. Those numbers are surprising given that Kentucky was tied for first in the nation with fewest passing touchdowns allowed, with only four, entering Saturday. According to Cats’ safety Jordan Griffin, those losses came from miscommunications.
“We had some mistakes in the back end, with some communication errors. It’s kinda hard to deal with late in the season like this. We can deal with 50/50 balls. That’s the name of the game. But we lacked some errors in communication,” Griffin said.
Guarantano’s ability to scramble in the pocket and take his time on some of his throws also gave the front line some issues. He was able to help get nine first downs while converting 3-of-4 third downs. The mobile, dynamic signal caller also exploited defenders while rushing for 30 yards on six attempts. Although Cats’ lineman Calvin Taylor Jr. had three sacks and forced a fumble in the fourth quarter, he says Guarantano still had room to run.
“With mobile guys, you gotta have discipline. You can’t really rush up the field because he’s a very mobile guy so you gotta clog up the rush window. That was kind of our game plan. [Later] we were just filling the gaps when he was coming up,” Taylor said.
Defensive coordinator Brad White says he wasn’t surprised to see the way that the receiver trio played, while taking some blame.
“All their guys, they did a really good job with the ball in the air. We knew that coming in. You know they made plays, and those were balls that again were 50/50 balls. You gotta make those plays if you wanna win ballgames. But at the same time, I gotta do better,” White said.
The Cats were ultimately able to provide some damage control in the fourth quarter. Marquan McCall recovered a fumble in the fourth quarter before the Cats forced a three-and-out later on to help give the offense some opportunities. Overall, the defense allowed 296 total yards on the night – the fourth consecutive time that the Cats limited an SEC opponent to less than 305 yards.
With the Cats hitting the road to take on Vanderbilt University next week, White says it’s important to learn from Saturday’s game without dwelling on the negatives.
“From start to finish, we played hard. But they’ve got to keep that attitude and that mentality week in and week out. We’ve all gotta make better calls; I’ve gotta do better. We’ll grow where we win those [50/50 balls],” White said.