KNOXVILLE — It began innocently enough. On Tennessee's first offensive possession, Joshua Dobbs hit Von Pearson with a short pass in the flat.
The good news for Kentucky was that Wildcats senior safety Ashely Lowery had a dead bead on Pearson for a short gain.
Instead, Pearson juked, Lowery whiffed on his tackle attempt — and what should have been a nothing play became a 21-yard Volunteers touchdown.
For the UK defense, the tone to another highly disappointing day had been set.
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"We had opportunities to make some plays," Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops lamented, "and we just didn't do it."
As it has now done 29 times in the past 30 seasons, Tennessee beat Kentucky in football Saturday. The Volunteers (5-5, 2-4 SEC) put a 50-16 spanking on the reeling Wildcats (5-6, 2-6) before an announced Neyland Stadium crowd of 102,455.
In the midst of a five-game losing skid, the defensive numbers have become grim for Kentucky.
Tennessee recorded 511 yards of offense. It could have had more. UT had 468 yards through three quarters. Leading 50-16 entering the final period, Vols Coach Butch Jones called off the proverbial dogs.
So in its last two games, Kentucky has now surrendered 113 points and a stunning 1,070 yards.
In its eight Southeastern Conference games in 2014, UK allowed more than 500 yards five times.
Obviously, this was not what people had in mind when Kentucky hired Stoops, considered one of the premier defensive coordinators in the country, off the staff at Florida State.
Afterward, Stoops again took the blame. "They beat us, outplayed us and outcoached us," Stoops said of Tennessee.
The Kentucky coach said that, at the end of a stretch of eight games in eight weeks, the last five against SEC foes — four of whom were ranked — the Wildcats had little fuel left in the tank. "Our guys are banged up," he said.
Just as it was in last week's 63-31 loss to Georgia, UK's defensive motto Saturday may as well have been Missed Tackles R Us.
Repeatedly, Tennessee true freshman running back Jalen Hurd (118 yards rushing) ran through Kentucky defenders. Impressive Vols true sophomore quarterback Joshua Dobbs stressed the Wildcats with his arm (threw for 297 yards) and legs (ran for 47, eluded potential sacks several other times).
The UK secondary had the devil's own time tackling a Tennessee wide receiving corps filled with physically imposing wide-outs.
Kentucky has not fared especially well defensively against good competition all season. But the missed tackles were not nearly so plentiful a problem earlier in the year.
Theories abounded Saturday over what has caused UK's late-season tackling breakdown.
"It's just a combination of things," UK defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "We've got to really emphasize (tackling). When we are in position to make plays, we've got to make plays. And we've got to continue to coach better at tackling."
Said UK middle linebacker Josh Forrest: "I think it's mostly bad body position, not bending the knees like we should."
Added Cats defensive end Alvin "Bud" Dupree: "I can't tell you. I don't know. People have to wrap up and drive your feet. All there is to it."
Amidst the carnage of a porous defensive effort, Forrest and Dupree deserve recognition for at least putting up a fight.
Forrest, the converted wide receiver from Paducah Tilghman, was credited with a career-high 20 tackles. Defensive end Dupree, a very good player winding down a career spent playing on not very good Kentucky teams, had 15 tackles including two tackles for loss and a sack.
"I'm proud of those two's efforts," Eliot said.
Whatever explains Kentucky's defensive struggles, the one often cited this season — youth — does not apply. UK listed 12 first-string players (normal 11 positions plus a nickel back) on its defensive depth chart Saturday.
Of those, 10 were juniors or seniors.
Asked what has to happen for Kentucky to field a more effective defense, Stoops was blunt.
"We need to be more physical. Recruit and develop," he said. "Things don't happen overnight. We need to continue to pound the weight room, need to continue to recruit and get our players better. And bigger."
After these last two weeks, there's nowhere to go but up.