The 1-2 Kentucky football team will be looking to build off of last week’s victory over Mississippi State this Saturday, as they travel to Knoxville for a matchup against SEC-East rival Tennessee.
It has not been since 1984 that UK has defeated the Vols in Knoxville, and has only since won twice in the series home or away (2012, 2017). Even the last two seasons, Kentucky has come into the matchup favored and unable to capitalize. Last year at Kroger Field, UK suffered a demoralizing 17-13 defeat at the hands of Tennessee, as they were unable to convert on two plays from the one-yard line and themselves gave up a few explosive gains defensively, allowing the Vols to take control.
Despite both teams going into the game with pro-style offenses that have a more physical approach, UK Head Coach Mark Stoops said on Thursday that, like the last matchup between the two, explosive plays and converting in the enemy’s territory could make the difference in a win or a loss.
“I think it’s always important, it’s a big part of the game. Again, I think it comes down to explosive plays as well, and to me that was the difference in the game a year ago. You know, we were very effiicient in both sides of the line of scrimmage and showed some really explosive runs and moved the football, but we have to be able to punch it in. And we played a good game defensively, but we gave up some big shots in the pass game. To me, it was the big difference in the game,” he said.
Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano has had an up and down career as a Volunteer, but his best outings against an FBS opponent in each of the last three seasons have come against the Cats. Overall in his career, he is 37/51 for 551 passing yards and four touchdowns with zero interceptions when playing Kentucky. In fact, he went 7/8 for 151 passing yards and two touchdowns with zero interceptions last season when he came in as a backup, converting on the explosive plays that ultimately won the game for the Vols.
“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,” UK defensive coordinator Brad White said.
Arguably Guarantano’s favorite target, wideout Josh Palmer, already has 14 receptions for 227 yards and three touchdowns on the season. Last year, Palmer caught four passes for 55 yards (13.8 yard average) and one touchdown against the Cats.
If Kentucky is unable to get pressure on Guarantano, they could be in danger of giving up big plays to Palmer, as he has shown the ability to go up and make 50/50 catches. But, much like they did against Mississippi State, pressure on the quarterback goes a long way in effecting the passing attack. Plus, as I wrote about earlier this week, Guarantano has the tendency to be loose with the ball in the pocket.
Maybe UK’s most consistent D-lineman, Josh Paschal, has been practicing this week according to coach Mark Stoops, despite having to sit out the second half against Mississippi State due to a knee sprain. Even though he has no sacks on the season, he has been dominant in getting pressure when in the game and has shown great awareness on the line, even snagging an interception last week that he nearly took to the end zone for a touchdown. His presence will be immense for UK assuming he plays.
Likewise, Kentucky will need to sustain long drives and create their own explosive plays. Against Ole Miss, they were able to do that frequently, as both running backs Chris Rodriguez (133) and AJ Rose (117) had career highs in rushing yards and quarterback Terry Wilson was 14/18 for 151 yards and had 129 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries. The next week was a different story, as Kentucky combined for just 157 yards total and Wilson was just 8/20 for 73 yards and one touchdown against MSST.
So, getting back to gaining momentum early offensively and Wilson playing comfortably will be key, as well as keeping Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano from making explosive plays.