For a moment, let’s step back and admire the numbers.
In Kentucky’s perpetual house of horrors — Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium — the Wildcats ran the ball down the Volunteers’ throats.
UK amassed 443 rushing yards.
UK rushed the football 55 times — and gained an average of 8.1 yards on each carry.
The Wildcats had five different rushers — five! — gain more than 70 yards.
With such dominance over the ground, it is all but impossible to lose a football game.
Except at Kentucky.
Tennessee (7-3, 3-3 Southeastern Conference) beat UK for a fifth straight year, besting the Wildcats 49-36 in a free-wheeling game that saw both teams combine for 1,274 yards.
In a game where the Wildcats (5-5, 4-4) so dominated the offensive line of scrimmage, they nevertheless left Neyland Stadium with an ‘L’ for a 16th straight time.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Kentucky junior running back Boom Williams said.
UK managed to lose in spite of amassing 635 total yards for two reasons.
One, the Wildcats defense proved helpless yet again against dual-threat Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound senior threw for 223 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 147 yards and two scores. Dobbs will finish his UT career 4-0 against UK, having personally accounted for 16 touchdowns (10 passing, six rushing).
Repeated futility in the red zone — offensively and defensively — was the other factor that did in the Cats.
On three trips inside the UK 20, Tennessee left with three touchdowns.
Kentucky entered Tennessee’s red zone six times. It scored only two TDs — one of which came in the game’s final two minutes, well after the outcome was decided. The Cats settled for three field goals and lost a fumble.
“The difference is in the red zone,” Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops said. “They capped (trips inside the 20) with some touchdowns. We capped it off with field goals.”
Said Tennessee Coach Butch Jones: “We rallied to make them kick field goals as opposed to touchdowns. That gave us an opportunity (to win).”
Why UK could not end drives in the end zone was multi-faceted.
In 19 red-zone plays, Kentucky did not complete one pass. The Cats tried only four — three fell incomplete and one yielded an interference penalty.
For the most part, UK has been well served by Stephen Johnson since he replaced the injured Drew Barker at quarterback in the third contest of the season. Kentucky offensive coordinator Eddie Gran praised the junior-college transfer Saturday for “managing the game well.”
However, Johnson’s inability to throw accurately in the red zone hurt UK Saturday.
“Things get tighter. Windows get smaller,” Stoops said. “We had a pass or two we have to stick in there. We’ve got to make some plays.”
Issues at positions other than QB kept the Wildcats out of the end zone, too.
With the game tied at 7 in the second quarter, Kentucky had a 3rd-and-goal at the Tennessee 1. Running back Benny Snell appeared to have a path to the end zone — except that Vols defensive end Corey Vereen collapsed the block of UK tackle George Asafo-Adjei, and Snell got taken down for a 1-yard loss.
UK settled for a field goal.
With the Cats down 28-16 early in the third quarter, they had it 3rd-and-four at the Tennessee 8. The hard-running Snell plowed up the middle and appeared to have the first down — only to lose the ball on the way to the ground.
Tennessee’s LaTroy Lewis recovered.
“It got punched out from the back,” a dejected Snell said.
With winless Austin Peay headed for Commonwealth Stadium next Saturday, UK should be all but assured of the sixth victory that will make it bowl eligible for the first time since 2010.
Still, for a Kentucky program that entered this season using “Finish” as its marketing slogan, watching the offense run the ball at will against Tennessee only to lose to the Vols for the 31st time in the last 32 meetings was hard to stomach.
Said Gran: “To be great, to get over the hump, to be where we want to be, we’ve got to finish. Especially in this league, especially on the road, we need touchdowns, not field goals.”