Photo slideshow: Kentucky falls 24-7 to Vols in Knoxville
The word of the day was “frustrating.”
In a tiny, windowless room under the massive stands of Neyland Stadium, coaches and players — especially the seniors and team leaders — stared ahead with blank faces, blank stares trying to process what had just happened in 24-7 drubbing at Tennessee on Saturday.
“It’s very frustrating,” senior C.J. Conrad said after the shellacking, which included the No. 11 Cats giving up more points in the first half (17) than they had been averaging coming into the game.
“I thought we were very prepared going into the game, but it showed on the field that we weren’t,” Conrad continued. “They were more hungry than us tonight for whatever reason.”
It was the same on the other side of the ball where Kentucky’s highly touted defense struggled to contain a Tennessee offense that was among the worst in the nation, ranked No. 120 out of 130 teams in the country in total offense while averaging just 333 yards per game.
On Saturday night, it looked far better than that with 412 yards, an average of 6.9 yards per play to a measly 3.6 for the Cats, who lost their 17th straight game to the Volunteers in Knoxville.
“Not a very good effort,” Coach Mark Stoops said. “Really starts with me and really ends with me.”
Kentucky’s defense was gashed over and over and over again by big plays, a rush of 59 yards for Jordan Murphy, for 29 yards by Ty Chandler, and 22 yards for Tim Jordan.
Huge passes from Jarrett Guarantano, who completed 12 of 20 attempts for 197 yards and two touchdowns, to players including Marquez Callaway (39 yards), Murphy (38 yards) and Jordan (34 yards).
After a Brent Cimaglia 19-yard field goal opened the scoring, Jordan’s 3-yard run made it 10-0 late in the second quarter.
It got much worse two minutes later when Guarantano heaved a 39-yard Hail Mary that landed in Callaway’s hands at the halftime horn to make it 17-0 when the game was just half over.
Stoops was more miffed about the huge third down run that set up that score.
“That was a big play,” the coach said. “The run on third down was a huge play. It led to seven points. That was a big, big play for us. That one we’ll be kicking ourselves for a while with the call that we made and that set up for seven. That’s kind of like a punch in the gut.”
Kentucky’s offense did nothing to help matters in the second quarter, managing just 1 yard on 15 plays. The Cats had just 68 yards of total offense in the first half.
While Tennessee (5-5, 2-5 Southeastern Conference) made big play after big play, Kentucky was the opposite. The Cats’ longest plays came on two 20-yard catches, one for Conrad and another for Tavin Richardson.
The Cats’ longest runs were a 19-yarder for Benny Snell and another one for Terry Wilson, who completed 21 of 34 attempts for 172 yards and one score with one interception.
“There’s something that’s always not right, and no explosive plays is really killing us right now,” Gran said. “I’ve got to get that created now.”
And when Kentucky had opportunities, it didn’t close the deal.
“We were on that side of the (field) five times and we came away with one touchdown,” Gran said of the 19-yard score for Conrad after the Cats were down 24-0. “That’s ridiculous.”
Some things have to change for the UK offense, which managed just 262 yards on 73 plays, including just 77 yards rushing. The Cats had been averaging 199.6 yards per game on the ground.
“We always could look at things,” Stoops said of offensive issues. “We won’t be drastic, but there’s things we can do to be more effective and we have to take responsibility for that and put our kids in a position to be successful.”
Kentucky has two games left in the regular season, first a Senior Day game versus Middle Tennessee at Kroger Field on Saturday and then a trip to archrival Louisville a week after that.
Snell was frustrated, saying that Kentucky (7-3, 5-3) has come too far — including a 7-1 start and a No. 9 national ranking from the College Football Playoff Committee – to fall apart at the end of the season.
The junior running back didn’t want to hear about hangovers from losing the league’s East Division title a week ago against Georgia. He didn’t want to hear any excuses.
Things have to change in a hurry, Snell said.
“There’s not guys that have that dog mentality, that want it, that are hungry, that are hungry for it and want it,” he said. “It was obvious Tennessee wanted it more than Kentucky, so that’s why the outcome was what it was. We’ve got to eliminate those guys that don’t have that hunger.”
Middle Tennessee at No. 11 Kentucky
Noon Saturday (TV TBA)