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The 117th meeting between Kentucky and Tennessee involves two teams fighting for two different reasons, as the regular season draws closer to an end.
No. 18 Kentucky (6-2, 4-2) will host the Vols (4-4, 2-3), Saturday night in Lexington, as the two sides have split the last four meetings, with the Wildcats winning 34-7 last season in Knoxville. Kentucky is a .5 point favorite, according to FanDuel. The game will be broadcasted on ESPN2 at 7pm ET, which is sure to include a raucous crowd at Kroger Field.
After a trip to Starkville last weekend for the Wildcats, which resulted in another road loss to Mississippi State, Kentucky is looking to snap a 2-game losing streak. It seems as though this football team has lost their way over the past few weeks, especially in the rushing department, where they’ve been held to 117 total yards in their past two outings. For this Kentucky team to be successful, they will need Chris Rodriguez to look more like the running back we watched play against LSU, where he racked up 147 yards on the ground.
What we’ve seen so far this season from the Wildcats is pretty simple. as this offense goes with the run game. This team proved last weekend that relying on just Will Levis to win you a game is not an option. That’s not a knock to Levis, but the quarterback thrives when he can off-set his passing with a productive rushing attack. The 150 yards and 3 interceptions he threw last weekend against the Bulldogs, won’t win this team many games down the stretch. If you remember, this is a football team that started the season 6-0, before Georgia showed up on their schedule. Looking at their defense, which has given up an average of 116 rushing yards per game and 219 yards through the air, Saturday night will no doubt be another tough task for this group.
I have no doubts that Kentucky will show up ready to try and run the ball down Tennessee’s throat and expose the Vols lack of depth. I know it’s much easier said than done, but this is how the Wildcats beat the Vols, besides Will Levis finding Wan’Dale Robinson or Josh Ali down the field.
Mark Stoops was very clear this week on what this team must do to stop the Vols offense.
“It is different the way they will attack you, but similar in that they put pressure on you in the run game. Tennessee puts pressure on you, still. They have extremely wide splits, but they’re going to run the ball and be more committed to running the ball and run it more effectively. With their splits, they are going to take their shots in the RPO (run/pass option) game. You have to be able to win some contested matchups.”
Speaking of those contested matchups, this is where Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker comes into the fold. Hooker is on pace to set records in passing efficiency and completions percentage this season, as he currently ranks fourth in the country in efficiency, and leads the SEC. This is in large part due to his wide receivers starting to find space in the opposing secondary, especially over the last month. He’s been able to rely on Cedric Tillman, Javonta Payton and Velus Jones Jr. to help him down the field, especially when the pocket collapses.
Not only will Kentucky have to deal with Hooker, they will also have to contain a healthy running back group from the Vols. It’s pretty obvious that Tennessee has struggled in running the football, with Jabari Small and Tiyon Evans both dealing with injuries. But it wasn’t just the backfield, as the offensive line took the week off to get healthy, as Cade Mays and his brother Cooper Mays have been battling injuries, though both are expected to play on Saturday. This has made life uncomfortable for Hooker in the pocket, which Kentucky will look to continue capitalizing on this weekend.
Tennessee OC Alex Golesh spoke about the injury issues hurting the Vols over the last few weeks, but sure sounded happy to have a healthy group of players return against Kentucky.
“Luckily, I feel like coming back off this bye week that we’ve got a full stable – back to healthy at running back, we’re back to healthy on the o-line. I feel like we’re going to have our best chance now down the stretch to run the football as long as we can obviously stay healthy. But it has been really challenging both in running the football and being able to protect the quarterback in a lot of ways.”
This game will ultimately come down to which team can stop the opposing rushing attack, including the quarterbacks, who also like to make plays outside the pocket with their legs.
It’s an interesting situation that both teams face on Saturday night. On one hand, Kentucky is looking to snap a losing streak and continue fighting for a “New Years Six” bowl game, while Tennessee is looking to add an impressive win to their 2021 resume’, while also taking another step towards a 7-win mark, which would exceed expectations for this group and put them in a decent bowl game. But, more importantly for the Vols, it’s about showing their fan base that this team is continuing to head in the right direction. As for Kentucky, they need to right this ship and make sure the 6-0 start to the season doesn’t go down in flames, with their 3rd straight loss.
I expect a fight on Saturday night, and no, I am not talking about the Canelo Alvarez vs. Caleb Plant bout. Tennessee and Kentucky have played some pretty intense games over the last number of years, and I wouldn’t expect anything different at Kroger Field.
If they really wanted to make this game feel bigger, they’d bring back that damn barrel. But that’s a fight for another day.