Kentucky’s defense redeemed themselves with an absolutely dominant performance last Saturday against Mississippi State. UK held the Bulldogs’ air raid offense scoreless, only giving up points off a bad snap to punter Max Duffy. They avoided explosive plays, giving up just 3.5 yards per play and picking off the MSST quarterbacks six times combined.
The next QB that UK will be facing — Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano — has been both up and down through his four-year career in terms of production for the Vols. With that said, he is 37/51 throwing for 554 yards and four touchdowns with zero interceptions in his career against the Cats. Last year in a 17-13 win over UK, Guarantano came in and shredded Kentucky’s secondary, going 7/8 for 151 passing yards and two touchdowns.
In fact, each of the last three outings in which Guarantano has played against Kentucky, he has posted his highest QBR rating against an FBS opponent in that respective season. On Monday, UK Head Coach Mark Stoops pointed at his toughness and ability to deliver the ball accurately as reasons he has had success previously.
“I really respect (him), he is a tough guy. He stands in that pocket and takes some shots and can deliver the football down the field. They do a nice job of creating some matchups and throwing some shot plays outside and deep and he has the arm strength to get it there and be accurate and drop it in, give his receivers an opportunity to make plays. I think that was a big difference the past two games with them. You can look at several plays last year – that was a heckuva football game – and you can look at 3-4 competitive plays that they made that we didn’t and it separated the win and the loss, outside of the plays at the goal line at the end,” he said.
UK Defensive Coordinator Brad White echoed Stoops’ comments on Wednesday, saying his toughness bleeds into the rest of the team.
“I think it starts with his toughness. He is as tough as any young man that I have seen at quarterback. I mean he’ll take hits and he’ll pop right back up. There’s no laying on the ground. You can see that his guys rally around him. He’s got good arm strength, he can make the throws. He’s got good pocket awareness. He can slide around the pocket. At times, just make you miss. He can extend the plays just enough and his eyes are downfield. He’s got a lot of savvy to him. But I think, again I go back, I think there’s a toughness factor to him and it sort of bleeds into the rest of their offense, and they play tough,” he said.
While Guarantano does in fact stand in the pocket without regards to pressure, he often has been caught leaving the ball vulnerable and can be less precise at times when throwing. Against Georgia last week in the second half, the Tennessee QB was stripped in the backfield, as he stood between the hashmarks too long before a Bulldog defender got too him.
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He also threw one INT in the half as the Volunteers were outscored 30-0 after going into halftime up 21-14.
Behind an offensive line as powerful as the one Tennessee currently has, it can be hard to get to Guarantano. But as we saw last week against Mississippi State, pressure can go a long way in effecting the QB. Considering the pendulum-like momentum swinging that Guarantano plays with, a few deflections or turnovers can go along way in UK securing a victory.