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Tennessee vs. Kentucky: 10 things

Photo: UTSports.com

Tennessee traveled to Lexington on Saturday and fell to Kentucky, 29-26, in what was just the Vols’ second loss to the Wildcats in the past 33 years. Here are 10 things that stood out:

1.) A nonsensical penalty

The SEC has to address the blanket unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that was called early in the game. After Tennessee kicked a field goal to go up 3-0, there was a scuffle on the ensuing kickoff, which went into the end zone for a touchback. A number of players from both teams were involved: players from Tennessee’s kickoff team, players from Kentucky’s kick return team, and players from Kentucky’s offense, which was taking the field. The officials took an unprecedented measure: unsportsmanlike conduct against every player on either team — regardless of whether they were on the field.

That result meant that any player receiving an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty the rest of the way would be ejected. College football rules dictate that a player is ejected after his second such penalty. There were two more off-setting unsportsmanlike conduct penalty sequences, resulting in the ejection of four players.

As a result, Tennessee lost its two best defenders: linebacker Daniel Bituli and defensive back Rashaan Gaulden. Gaulden had had a major impact on the game, and Bituli is one of the Vols’ leading tacklers. Because his penalty occurred in the second half, Gaulden will also have to sit the first half of next week’s game against Southern Miss.

This is outrageous. Neither Bituli or Gaulden were involved in the initial skirmish. Tennessee should ask the SEC to overrule Gaulden’s suspension next week, but the league should preemptively address the blanket penalty from earlier in the game. It was unprecedented and unjustifiable.

Did the ejection of Bituli and Gaulden have an impact on Kentucky’s final drive of the game? Maybe not. But maybe so. Those are two good defenders, and Kentucky’s offense was unable to move the ball in the second half until that final drive.

2.) Not applying fairly

Kentucky’s Benny Snell had a huge game, with 180 rushing yards on 27 carries. The bulk of those yards (130+) came in the first half. But given the way the game was officiated, his big day should’ve never happened. He should’ve been ejected in the first quarter.

After a big run early, Snell spiked the ball directly in front of an official. That’s supposed to be an automatic unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. After the ridiculous blanket call that had occurred earlier, it would’ve meant an ejection for Snell. If it’s good enough for Bituli and Gaulden, it’s good enough for Snell.

3.) Early offensive miscues

Tennessee managed to break its streak of consecutive quarters without an offensive touchdown, at 15, in the second quarter. In fact, the Vols scored twice in the second quarter, both on touchdown runs by freshman runningback Ty Chandler.

But the first quarter was more of the same from UT’s inept offense. When Kentucky fumbled on the first play from scrimmage and gave Tennessee possession at the 15-yard-line, and the Vols responded by moving the ball just three yards before settling for a field goal, it seemed as if opposing teams couldn’t gift UT a touchdown. (Remember, Alabama set Tennessee up in the red zone last week with a muffed punt.)

Later, Tennessee got to the one-yard-line before an illegal formation penalty backed the Vols up five yards and ultimately forced a field goal. Throw in an 80-yard touchdown run by Chandler that was wiped off due to a penalty and it was almost laughable.

At that point, Tennessee had been to the red zone 12 times since the Indiana State game. The Vols had scored touchdowns on just two of those trips (both against Massachusetts), had settled for field goals six times and had gotten no points four times. Penalties had occurred inside the red zone on six of those 12 trips. And the illegal formation penalty marked the third time in those 12 trips that Tennessee had committed a penalty at its opponents’ one-yard-line.

4.) Still weak in the red zone

Despite the two second quarter touchdowns — runs of one yard and two yards by Chandler — Tennessee still finished poorly in the red zone today. The Vols got there six times — they had been there just 10 times in the last four games, and just seven times in the last three games — so that was the good news. The bad news was that they settled for field goals on four of those six trips to the red zone, including two trips where they had first-and-goal situations. That’s not good, and it proved to be the difference in the game.

5.) Under center — go figure!

Fans’ biggest complaint about Butch Jones’ offense has been the Vols’ penchant for sticking to the shotgun in goal line situations. However, on both touchdowns in goal line situations today, Jarrett Guarantano was under center. And it worked, strangely enough! After Tennessee’s goal line debacle against Florida, which saw the Vols turn a first-and-goal from inside the one-yard-line into no points after going into the shotgun and throwing three consecutive passes, Jones defended the decision by saying that Guarantano (who entered the game for one snap that wound up being a false start because Quinten Dormady had been shaken up) hadn’t taken snaps under center in practice.

No one believed Jones at the time — for good reason; Twitter was quick to put forth photographic evidence to the contrary — but, clearly, Guarantano has practiced under center since that time. It’s a good look, your QB under center in short down-and-distance situations. It’s something Tennessee should try more often.

6.) Hot-and-cold Guarantano

Jarrett Guarantano looks good at times. His fourth down throw when Tennessee was facing fourth down on the final, desperate possession was beautiful, as was a throw two plays later on the final snap of the game. It came up three yards short of the end zone but it was a good effort.

Guarantano seems to be close to being a very good SEC quarterback. He is certainly showing flashes of ability. Unfortunately, he’s still way too inconsistent. His 18-of-23 for 242 was a good stat line today, but he was sacked seven times. And while some of those sacks were on Tennessee’s porous offensive line, some of them were on Guarantano, who has very poor pocket presence. That has to change.

7.) Ty Chandler is a stud

We knew Ty Chandler has game-breaking speed. What we saw today was that the true freshman also has the ability to punish defenders. He ran with the same attitude of John Kelly at times today. That bodes well for the future. A guy with that kind of speed who runs that nasty can be legitimately great in the SEC. Chandler finished with 120 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries. Carlin Fils-aime had 73 yards on 13 carries. Tim Jordan, another freshman, also showed some flashes.

How would you like to be coaching candidates looking at this offensive firepower? John Kelly, Ty Chandler, Carlin Fils-aime, Jarrett Guarantano, all back next season? There’s some serious potential there. One thing Tennessee won’t be hurting for is offensive firepower. That seems weird to even say, given how impotent this year’s offense has been.  But it’s true.

8.) Rashaan Gaulden is stepping up his game

Rashaan Gaulden has to learn some self control — his fan gesture at Alabama last week was embarrassing, and he followed that up by being ejected at Kentucky — but he is playing some serious football. He had a hand in two Kentucky turnovers today. The junior has become one of the Vols’ top defenders.

Not bad for a guy who, according to ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit, shouldn’t even be playing football. Herbstreit said on ESPN’s College Gameday Saturday morning that Jones should’ve kicked Gaulden off the team for last week’s stunt — he gave Alabama fans two middle fingers after Daniel Bituli’s pick-six — and the fact that Jones didn’t was a sign that the Vols lack discipline.

It was a ridiculous assessment by Herbstreit. Sure, Gaulden’s stunt was way over the top. I criticized Jones for inserting him on the next series and said he should be suspended. But kicked off the team? How absurd! Herbstreit is a hypocrite. He didn’t utter a word about a similar stunt pulled by Alabama runningback Bo Scarborough at Neyland Stadium last year.

9.) A defensive about-face

The story with this Tennessee defense has been it’s solid play early, followed by meltdowns later in games as wear-and-tear sets in. It’s a short-handed defense, with a number of players sidelined by injuries.

Until the final drive, today’s defensive effort appeared to be just the opposite. Kentucky moved the ball with ease in the first half, racking up 212 yards of offense. The second half was completely different, with the Wildcats managing just 87 yards of offense until they started their final drive with five minutes remaining. Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop and his assistants made the proper adjustments to take away Snell, who ran wild in the first half.

Of course, that final drive proved to be the drive that told the story. Kentucky drove the field to score and win the game, making the proper adjustments to keep Tennessee’s defense on its heels. Once again, the Vols were out-coached by an opposing staff. And the defense came up empty when it mattered most.

10.) How did Tennessee lose this game?

Serious question. Kentucky showed some fire early. But then it appeared that the Vols punched them in the mouth and they didn’t want any more. The Wildcats played much of the second half uninspired and without emotion.

The problem was that Tennessee played just as uninspired. The Vols looked like they were simply trying to out-last Kentucky, and it came back to bite them. It was problematic that UT had completely dominated the second half, yet led only 26-21 when the Wildcats began their final drive.

Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson had fewer than 50 yards passing. Tennessee’s defense forced four turnovers, while the Vols did not turn the ball over.

Think about that. The Wildcats’ QB had less than 50 yards through the air and the Vols were +4 in turnovers. If someone had set that storyline for you going into the game, would you have ever thought there was a chance that Kentucky could win?

Let this be a lesson for you, kids: you have to be able to finish drives by punching the ball in for touchdowns. You can’t play not to lose. Killer instinct! This Tennessee team doesn’t have it. And it bit the Vols tonight.

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