No. 18 Kentucky Comes Up Just Short, Falling to Tennessee

by Madison Dennis

LEXINGTON, Ky. – No. 18 Kentucky amassed 612 yards of total offense on Saturday night but the Cats came up just short, falling to Tennessee 45-42 at Kroger Field.

Quarterback Will Levis connected on 31 of 49 through the air for 372 yards and three touchdowns with an interception. Levis also rushed 15 times for 47 yards and two touchdowns.

Chris Rodriguez Jr. led the Cats’ ground attack with 109 yards on 22 carries. Wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson caught 13 passes for 166 yards and a score.

Tennessee wasted no time getting on the board. On the first play from scrimmage, quarterback Hendon Hooker hit JaVonta Payton with a screen pass that Payton took 75 yards for a touchdown. Chase McGrath added the point after and the Vols had a 7-0 lead just 11 seconds into the game.

Kentucky answered right back. With their first possession, the Cats relied on the run game, with both Rodriguez and Kavosiey Smoke gaining significant ground. UK would cover 75 yards in 14 plays, taking 8:36 off the clock. The drive ended with a nine-yard touchdown rush from Smoke. Matt Ruffolo added the PAT and the game was tied 7-7 with 6:13 to play in the first quarter.

On its second possession, Tennessee struck again, though not quite as quickly. The Vols need three plays to cover 75 yards this time. On third down, Hooker hit Velus Jones with a 72-yard scoring strike. McGrath added the PAT and UT led 14-7 with 5:47 still left in the first quarter.

Kentucky took the next possession and again marched into Tennessee territory. The Cats were threatening when the first quarter ended, with UT ahead 14-7.

The drive would stall and UK was forced into a 50-yard field goal attempt from Ruffolo. But the kick sailed right and missed, and the Vols took over at their own 32.

Tennessee quickly got into UK territory again but Hooker fumbled on the third play of the drive and UK’s Jacquez Jones recovered, giving the Cats the ball on their own 29 with 13:34 left in the half.

The Cats took advantage of the miscue. UK drove into UT territory and used a couple of big plays to get into the end zone. First, Levis connected with Robinson on a 31-yard completion near the right sideline. Then, Chauncey Magwood took a lateral from Levis, then threw it back to Levis, who gained 15 yards and got the ball to the UT eight yard line. From there, Levis ran it in for the touchdown. Ruffolo added the point after and the game was tied 14-14 with 10:23 left in the half.

Tennessee would be forced to punt on its next possession, for the first time in the game. Kentucky would take advantage.

The Cats took over at its own 32 yard line and, again, used the ground game to move the ball. The first six plays of the drive were all runs and all were for positive yardage, getting UK inside UT territory. Then, Levis connected with Magwood on a 17-yard completion across the middle, getting the Cats to the Vols’ 19 yard line.

After Levis took a quarterback draw up the middle for 13 yards, getting the Cats to the UT three yard line, the UK quarterback hit tight end Justin Rigg with a three-yard scoring pass. Ruffolo added the PAT and the Cats led 21-14 with 3:57 left in the half.

Tennessee would tie the game before the end of the half. The Vols had their first significant drive of the game, going 52 yards in seven plays over the span of 2:36. The drive ended when Hooker hit Jacob Warren with an 18-yard pass over the middle for a touchdown. McGrath added the point after and the game was tied 21-21 with 1:14 left in the half.

Kentucky took the ensuing drive and got into UT territory. However, the Cats could not get past the UT 39 and, on fourth down, Levis’ pass for Robinson was incomplete and the Vols took over with 16 seconds left in the half.

Tennessee quickly got itself into UK territory. And, on the final play of the first half, McGrath nailed a 43-yard field goal at UT took a 24-21 lead into the half.

In the second half, Kentucky took possession first and the Cats methodically marched down the field again. The Cats used 10 plays, five passes and five rushes, to cover 75 yards in 5:04. The drive ended when Levis snuck scored on a two-yard quarterback sneak. Ruffolo added the PAT and the Cats led 28-24 with 9:56 left in the third.

As they did all night, Tennessee wasted little time taking the lead back. The Vols needed just 37 seconds to cover 49 yards. Jabari Small covered the final 37 yards with a touchdown rush and McGrath added the point after, giving UT a 31-28 lead with 9:11 still left in the third quarter.

With its next drive, Kentucky was driving again. But Levis was picked off by UT’s Alontae Taylor, who took it 56 yards for a Volunteer touchdown. McGrath added the PAT and the Vols led 38-28 with 6:23 left in the third quarter.

Kentucky would respond with yet another long scoring drive. The Cats would need 5:03 to cover 75 yards in nine plays. The drive culminated with a 15-yard scoring pass from Levis to Robinson. Ruffolo added another PAT and the UT lead was cut to 38-35 with 1:20 left in the third.

Tennessee took the next possession and got to UK’s side of the field again very quickly. But this time, on fourth and eight, Abule Abadi-Fitzgerald caused Hooker to fumble and Kentucky took possession at their own 43.

Kentucky turned it over on downs on its next possession and UT took over at the Kentucky 47 yard line with 12:24 left in the game. The Vols would take advantage, eventually scoring when Hooker hit Cedric Tillman in the corner of the end zone for a six-yard touchdown. The PAT was good and Tennessee led 45-35 with 11:40 to play in the game.

The Cats had another answer. UK covered 75 yards in just five plays and got into the end zone when Levis connected with Izayah Cummings on a 15-yard touchdown pass. Ruffolo’s PAT made it 45-42 Tennessee with 9:36 to play.

Tennessee, as they did the entire game, drove down the field and appeared ready to score. But the Vols had a penalty and a sack inside the UK red zone and were forced to try a 35-yard field goal. But McGrath pushed it wide right and the Cats took the ball back, down 45-42, with 4:42 to play.

Kentucky, needing a field goal to tie or a touchdown to win, drove near midfield but faced a fourth and 24 from its own 34. That’s when Levis hit Cummings for 28 yards, extending the drive and getting the Cats into UT territory.

But from there, the Cats would have four straight incompletions and UT would take over with 29 seconds left.

Kentucky returns to action next week, wrapping up conference play with a visit to Vanderbilt. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. ET and the game can be seen on the ESPN2.

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