Wildcats crumble in Rocky Top, lose 44-6 to No. 3 Tennessee


Isabel McSwain

Kentucky Wildcats running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. (24) runs the ball down the field during the No. 19 Kentucky vs. No. 3 Tennessee football game on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022, at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee. Kentucky lost 44-6. Photo by Isabel McSwain | Kentucky Kernel

Cole Parke, Sports Editor

No. 19 Kentucky football (5-3) was defeated 44-6 in Knoxville against No. 3 Tennessee on Saturday, with the result marking the largest margin of defeat of the season for the Wildcats.
With the loss Kentucky falls to 1-2 on the road this season, 2-3 in conference play and 6-5 coming out of a bye week under head coach Mark Stoops.

Taking on the Vols in the same stadium they beat then No. 3 Alabama just weeks prior, Kentucky never truly felt equal to Tennessee barring a few drives in the first quarter, being beaten in nearly every aspect of the game.

“They outplayed us,” Stoops said. “We got beat by a better football team. You gotta come in here and play as good as you can in every area to expect to compete with a team that’s top three in the country, and we didn’t do that tonight.”

Tennessee took the lead on the first drive of the game and never looked back, never trailing or allowing the Wildcats to tie the game for the remainder of the night.

Kentucky’s defense seemed to hold somewhat strong in that first drive barring the final play, forcing a third-and-two before the Vols did what they do best and recorded a 55-yard touchdown courtesy of starting quarterback Hendon Hooker and wide receiver Jalin Hyatt.

“It’s a route we’ve worked, and we knew was coming so it’s a little disappointing,” defensive coordinator Brad White said. “We knew Hyatt was a focal point; he didn’t get passed off so that was a little disappointing. I’m not going to talk about who was supposed to be on, but there should have been a pass there. That’s something we worked on in practice.”

Kentucky’s defense managed to force the Vols to punt on their next offensive drive, after UK came up short with a third-and-out on its first offensive drive.

The Wildcats seemed to get back into the game on their next drive after Chris Rodriguez Jr. recorded a three-yard rushing touchdown up the middle, putting Kentucky just an extra-point away from the tie, but unfortunately for the Cats, that extra point would be blocked, leaving the score at 7-6.

Tennessee’s offense worked its way down the field looking to score once again, though the first quarter came to an end before that could come to fruition.

That said, with the Vols starting the second quarter on the two-yard line, it only took one play in the second quarter for Tennessee to retake the lead after a rush from Princeton Fant made it into the endzone. A minor lifeline that ultimately was never recognized did appear for Kentucky after the touchdown however, as Tennessee kicker Chase McGrath missed the extra point after a penalty negated his first attempt, bringing the score to 13-6.

Unfortunately for Kentucky, a third-and-out was followed by another Tennessee touchdown on a drive that included a 35-yard rush from Jaylen Wright. The scoring drive would ultimately be capped off by Wright himself, who just needed a one-yard rush to find himself in the endzone.

Kentucky looked to score on its next drive, but things took a disastrous turn.

The Wildcats marched down the field all the way to the Tennessee 12-yard line before a slant route to Dane Key was read well by the Tennessee defense as Key took a powerful hit and Juwan Mitchell picked the ball out of the air and returned it 48-yards to the UK 45-yard line.

“Those are the balls that can’t happen,” offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello said. “We churn out a long drive and had a chance to stay within one score and let one get away there. You can’t squander possessions against a really good offense like they have, you’re putting your defense in a really bad spot.”

Kentucky was able to force a punt on Tennessee’s subsequent drive but was then forced to punt on its own drive to give the Vols the ball back, something UT refused to let go unpunished as it took Tennessee just two plays before Hooker completed a 31-yard pass to Hyatt, who ran the ball into the endzone to see the Vols enter halftime with a 27-6 lead.

Starting the second half with possession, Kentucky had a chance to get back within two scores but squandered the opportunity with a quick third-and-out following back-to-back sacks to starting quarterback Will Levis.

Tennessee marched down the field once again before a defensive stand from the Wildcats forced a field goal, but even the three points put Kentucky behind by four scores.
Coming back onto the field Levis hoped to put the team on his back with a forced ball down the field, but the plan backfired on the projected first round NFL Draft pick as the ball was picked off by Brandon Turnage to give Tennessee possession back.

“I was trying to squeeze in a ball I don’t need to in a game where we’re down by a lot,” Levis said. “I just need to learn from that. I think that’s definitely not a throw I make if the game is closer.”

Unlike earlier in the game, Tennessee was unable to make the Wildcats pay for the mistake, with the subsequent field goal attempt bouncing off the left goal post.

Luckily for Tennessee, when it rains it pours. Attempting another deep ball, Levis underthrew his receiver and the ball was picked off by Doneiko Slaughter.

This time the mistake wouldn’t go unpunished as the Vols got back into the endzone as Hooker kept the ball himself and recorded an eight-yard rush to score.

The fourth quarter saw three straight punts, two from Kentucky and one from Tennessee, before the Vols capped off the dominant win with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Jabari Small.

By the end of the night, it seemed to be a tale of two quarterbacks with Hooker finishing the night with 245 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions while Levis finished with 98 yards for no touchdowns and three interceptions.

The loss marked the third in four games for Kentucky, with the Cats staying on the road against an opponent who just picked up a win over a top 25 opponent in Missouri.

Kentucky will look to ensure one loss doesn’t become a losing streak as it has been known to do in recent seasons under Stoops.

The Wildcats will kick off with the Tigers at Faurot Field in Columbia, Missouri, at noon on Saturday, Nov. 5, with the game airing live on the SEC Network.