In a wild SEC East contest that featured five lead changes and over 1,000 yards of total offense, Tennessee outlasted No. 18 Kentucky, 45-42, on a cool Saturday night at Kroger Field.
Redshirt senior quarterback Hendon Hooker had a career night in Lexington, completing 15-of-20 passes for a career-high 316 yards and four touchdowns. The Greensboro, North Carolina, native completed two throws of 70+ yards, marking the first time since at least 2000 that the Vols posted two offensive plays of 70 or more yards in the same game. The SEC’s most efficient QB improved his 2021 passer rating to 190.00 after entering the night with a league-best 179.92.
Tennessee’s receiving corps of Velus Jones Jr., Cedric Tillman and JaVonta Payton had a productive night as all three wideouts finished with more than 75 yards receiving and one touchdown apiece. Jones led the way with 100 yards, eclipsing the century mark for the second time this season, while Tillman and Payton added 79 and 78 yards, respectively. Redshirt junior tight end Jacob Warren also got on the score sheet with an 18-yard touchdown grab late in the second quarter.
Sophomore running back Jabari Small led the Vols on the ground with 55 yards on four carries, including a career-long 37-yard rush that went for his fourth touchdown of the 2021 campaign. Freshman Jaylen Wright had an efficient night in his first outing since Week 5 at Missouri, taking seven carries for 50 yards.
Wildcat quarterback Will Levis led a valiant effort for the Kentucky offense, finishing 31-for-49 with 372 passing yards, five total touchdowns (three passing, two rushing) and one interception. UK put up 612 yards of total offense and ran a program record 99 total plays in the defeat, possessing the ball for a staggering 46:08 of game time.
Defensively, UT’s linebacker duo of Jeremy Banks and Aaron Beasley each posted a game-high 14 tackles. It was Banks’ third-straight game registering double-digit tackles, while Beasley’s mark was a new career best. Junior edge rusher Byron Young led the Vols with two sacks, his most in a Tennessee uniform, while Alontae Taylor nabbed his first-career pick-six in the marathon effort.
Tennessee needed just one play to take its first lead of the night as Hooker hit Payton on a screen pass to the left side. The Nashville native dashed 75 yards down the sideline for his sixth receiving touchdown in his last seven games. Senior placekicker Chase McGrath knocked the PAT through the uprights to give the Vols a 7-0 edge 11 seconds into the game.
Kentucky responded with a methodical 14-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that used 8:36 of game clock. Kavosiey Smoke capped the series with a nine-yard TD rush up the middle that tied the ballgame, 7-7, with 6:13 remaining in the first quarter.
UT quickly regained the lead with another explosive touchdown play on the ensuing drive. Facing 3rd-and-7 from his own 28-yard line, Hooker linked up Jones Jr. for a 72-yard score on a deep ball down the left sideline. McGrath was true on the extra point, and Tennessee went ahead 14-7 with 5:47 left in the opening stanza.
Tennessee made its way into Kentucky territory for the third consecutive drive before a costly fumble gave the Wildcats the ball on their own 29-yard line with 13:34 to go in the first half. Levis orchestrated a six-play, 71-yard drive, finishing it off with his first rushing score of the season on an eight-yard QB keeper up the middle. Kentucky kicker Matt Ruffolo tacked on the PAT to tie the game once again, 14-14, with 10:23 left on the first-half clock.
After Tennessee’s offense stalled with a three-and-out, Levis led an 11-play, 68-yard touchdown drive that gave the Wildcats their first lead of the night. The junior QB found tight end Justin Rigg for a three-yard TD that provided UK a 21-14 advantage with 3:57 remaining in the first half.
The Volunteers evened the score on the following drive, putting together a seven-play, 52-yard series and that benefited from three Wildcat penalties. After a pass interference call on Kentucky DB Vito Tisdale moved the chains on fourth down, Hooker scrambled 15 yards before finding Warren on a seam route for an 18-yard touchdown. McGrath’s third PAT of the night made it 21 all with 1:14 left in the second quarter.
The Tennessee defense forced a turnover on downs and gave the Vols a chance to retake the lead with 16 seconds left in the half. Hooker fired three consecutive completions to Tillman for eight, 13 and 14 yards to set up a 43-yard try for McGrath, and the Newport Beach, California, native drilled it to put the Vols in front 24-21 as they headed into the halftime locker room.
Kentucky grabbed the lead once more out of the half on Levis’ second rushing TD of the night, a two-yard QB sneak that capped a 10-play, 75-yard drive for the Wildcats. Trailing 28-24, Tennessee responded in quick fashion with a three-play drive that spanned 47 seconds of game time. Small provided the score with a career-long 37-yard rush to the right side, and McGrath’s PAT put the Vols back on top, 31-28.
Taylor gave the Volunteers a double-digit cushion with his first career pick-six, intercepting Levis and returning it 56 yards for a touchdown with 6:23 remaining in the third quarter. McGrath remained perfect on extra points with his fifth make of the night that produced a 38-28 Big Orange lead.
The Wildcats countered with another lengthy drive late in the third quarter, using nine plays to go 75 yards and pull within three of the Vols. Levis connected with top target Wan’dale Robinson for the 15-yard score that narrowed UT’s lead to 38-35.
After Young’s 12-yard sack caused a Kentucky turnover on downs in the fourth quarter, Tennessee flashed a three-play, 53-yard touchdown drive that took 47 seconds off the game clock. Tillman set up his own touchdown reception with a 37-yard leaping grab on a 50-50 ball to the six-yard line before making a toe-tap TD in the back left corner of the end zone. McGrath’s sixth PAT gave UT another 10-point lead, 45-35, with 11:40 remaining in the contest.
Kentucky would not go away, however, completing its fourth 75-yard scoring drive on the night with a 24-yard touchdown pass down the middle from Levis to sophomore receiver Izayah Cummings. With Ruffolo’s PAT, the Wildcats trailed by only three points with 9:36 left in the game.
UK got the ball back with 4:42 on the clock after a Tennessee missed field goal, but the Tennessee defense held up for the final stop. The Wildcats threatened overtime after converting a 4th-and-24 to the UT 38-yard line, but four straight incompletions from Levis sealed Kentucky’s fate. Three kneel downs from Hooker cemented the final score, 45-42, for Josh Heupel’s first ranked win as Tennessee’s head coach.
The Vols return to Neyland Stadium for Homecoming next Saturday when they clash with top-ranked Georgia at 3:30 p.m. ET on CBS. Tickets are on sale at AllVols.com.