Kentucky defense struggled against Tennessee tempo


Tennessee Volunteers wide receiver Velus Jones Jr. (1) poses with a group of fans after the UK vs. Tennessee football game on Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021, at Kroger Field in Lexington, Kentucky. Tennessee won 45-42. Photo by Jack Weaver | Staff

Barkley Truax

“It’s really impossible to simulate their offense,” Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops said about Tennessee’s fast-paced offensive scheme.

It felt as though Kentucky and Tennessee were playing a Big 12-style of offense Saturday night at Kroger Field, where the Volunteers upset the No. 18 Wildcats 45-42. We saw minimal defense and a whole lot of offense from both squads—a pace in which Tennessee has excelled this season under offensive coordinator Josh Heupel.

Tennessee ran only 47 plays on the night compared to Kentucky’s 99, while only holding the ball less than 14 of the 60 total minutes of the game. 

“They do that all day, all the time and do it at a high level,” Stoops said. “So, when you have scout guys [at practice] looking at cards trying to run that tempo, it’s completely impossible to simulate that. We did [well] to stress the urgency of getting lined up and just getting calls and the communication part of it—but it’s a different style.”

It took just four plays and 37 seconds on two separate drives for the Volunteers to go 150 yards, which featured two 70 plus yard passing plays to JaVonte Payton and Velus Jones Jr., respectively. The first play of the game went on a screen pass to Payton for 75 yards, kicking off a night that would see over 1,000 combined yards of offense on the night.

“When you get an offense like this that’ll spread you out wide, there’s going to be some opportunities where you’ve got to make plays,” Kentucky defensive coordinator Brad White said post-game.

And spread the defense they did—Kentucky was caught sleeping more than once. Tennessee abused one-on-one match ups throughout the night, which caused some mismatches in coverage that resulted in big plays for the Volunteers.

“The first play of the game was just a simple bubble screen, but it’s so wide out there—you got one guy completely free,” Stoops said. “We’ve just got to make a tackle. Certain teams, certain match ups, certain things are harder.”

DeAndre Square, a linebacker who’s known for his run-stopping abilities, was burnt on a deep ball where he was tasked with man coverage on Jones Jr. Later in the first half, another Kentucky linebacker, Jacquez Jones was caught sleeping on his coverage amid a fast-paced drive that resulted in an 18-yard touchdown by UT tight end Jacob Warren, who was left wide open up the seam. 

For the second straight week, Kentucky was torched by the arm of the opposing quarterback. Last week in Starkville, Will Rogers had a record-setting performance, completing 36-39 passes for 344 yards and a touchdown while Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker went 15-20 through the air for 316 yards and four touchdowns Saturday night.

“The quarterbacks have been efficient in different ways last week to this week with the style of it,” White said about his defense’s struggles against the pass. “The disappointing thing about today … there were some communication issues on the back end that isn’t like that—that isn’t who we are.”

So many situational instances can be pointed to in terms of who the blame should be put on. White said it’s his job to put his players in successful positions.

“As poor as that was, I’m proud of how they continued to battle throughout the game,” White said about his defense. “We’ve got to find other ways to put them in situations that they’re comfortable and can execute in. At the end of the day, that falls on me and I have to do a better job.”