Kentucky football: Hungry Wildcats looking to slow, silence rival Tennessee

Kentucky quarterback Will Levis (7) hurdles Tennessee defense
Kentucky quarterback Will Levis (7) hurdles Tennessee defense /

The Kentucky football team is rested, healed, re-energized, and now ready for its biggest challenge of the year going on the road to face their bitter rival Tennessee which happens to be ranked No. 3 in the nation but the Wildcats are hungry to silence Rocky Top.

Kentucky (5-2, 2-2) ranked No. 17 this week in the AP Poll, and Tennesee the darling of the college football world this year at a perfect 7-0 including a win over Alabama will mark just the third time in 118 games that the two are both ranked.

The Vols lead the overall series 82-26-9 winning last year 45-42 in a game UK should have won. The Cats won in 2020 34-7 in what would be coach John Schlarmann’s final game on the sideline before passing away a few weeks later.

There is no love lost between these two teams and Kentucky dropped a pair of games to Ole Miss and South Carolina after climbing to No. 7 in the rankings and rebounded to stall the Mississippi State offense into a win as an underdog.

Now Mark Stoops’ team has had a week off to mend and set its sights on the final five games. Mathematically winning the SEC East which was the preseason goal is not out of the realm of possibility as they still face Georgia and Tennessee and those two still must play each other next week.

Kentucky didn’t fare well coming out of the bye week last year, but Stoops undoubtedly has his team more focused this week. It’s the SEC and every week is a big game that Stoops addressed about not getting too caught up in the team of the week.

"“Always a major point for us, we address the situation each and every week, (because) it’s a different situation, right? Coming off a big win, coming off a bad loss, you’re on the road, you’re at home, what situation are we in? Are you perceived to be a big underdog? Are you perceived to be a big favorite? Whatever the situation, it’s always different, that’s something we address, and this week will be no different.”"

While they successfully shut down Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense in Starkville with a 27-17 win, Brad White’s defense will need to keep the Vols in first gear while his offensive counterpart Rich Scangarello works to grind the game into a time of possession that heavily favors the Cats.

Ball control and the tempo is something Kentucky football does fairly well possessing it for close to 35 minutes per game this year which keeps the chains moving down the field thanks to converting 38 of 89 third downs (42.7 percent) and 9 out of 13 fourth down tries.

The UK defense has only allowed 29 of 94 third down conversions (30.9 percent) and 6 of 15 fourth downs.

For Kentucky to win this game one key will be possessing the ball for more than 40 minutes a game. The way Tennessee can eat up yards with explosive plays they don’t get into many third-down situations.

There are layers of things Kentucky must do well including not turning it over, allowing big chunk yards, special team blunders that have plagued them much of the year, and playing clean smart football.

Well and the obvious one that all of Big Blue Nation has seen is the offensive line allowing quarterback Will Levis to get hit, sacked, and beat up way, way too much.

Watching Levis duel with Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker if given the chance will be something to see. Two very smart and talented QBs that can put on quite a show.

The Vols score 50.4 points a game from 202.9 yards on the ground and 368.8 through the air for 4,002 yards of total offense.

Kentucky averages 26.3 points a game with a season total of 2,683 yards behind 113.4 on the ground and 260.3 passing.

So what do Stoops and the UK defense think about facing the number one offense in the nation?

"“I think that’s a great point, you’re definitely going to take some shots. They’re going to get some explosives. You’ve got to try and limit that as best as you can. Obviously, the explosives that we gave up a year ago didn’t help us in the game. Again, you’ve seen them do it this year at an even higher clip, so you can’t just sit back and give them everything in front of you either, like you can against some other teams, because they go so fast and they could rip off chunks, so anything underneath they could catch and run. Even the run game is explosive, so it’s a double-edged sword there.”"

However, Levis and the offense can be equally as explosive they just haven’t had all their weapons on the field at the same time.

Chris Rodriguez is back to his old self after serving a four-game suspension to open the season, and the receivers are outstanding despite Tayvion Robinson being sidelined in recent weeks with an injury.

Levis has completed passes to 16 different receivers this year with Robinson leading with 25 catches for 392 yards and 3 touchdowns. Barion Brown, another speedster, has 24 catches for 350 yards, and Dane Key has 20 for 322 yards.

With a full arsenal to work with for the first time all year, it will be interesting to see just how effective, efficient and potent Kentucky’s offense can be. However, it can’t get into a point-shootout.

That is despite the fact that Tennessee’s secondary gives up a lot of yards 329.7 per game including UT Martin ringing up 316 yards thru the air last week.  However, up-front teams have only averaged 90.9 yards rushing.

When push comes to shove Kentucky can control the game, but can they slow the potent Vols?

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