Coming into its 114th meeting against No. 11 Kentucky, Tennessee was pegged as a rare underdog against the Wildcats, who sought their first win in Knoxville since 1984.
Evidently, the Vols didn’t get the message.
Marquez Callaway hauled in a 39-yard Hail Mary to cap the first half, the Vols rolled up over 400 yards of total offense and Jarrett Guarantano notched a Tennessee record in a 24-7 win that marked yet another statement victory for Jeremy Pruitt’s inaugural season as head coach.
“This was far and away the most complete game our guys have played,” Pruitt said. “We challenged our players this week that we wanted to have the most rushing yards.. it wasn’t perfect, but it’s definitely very positive. I know those guys are enjoying that in the locker room.”
The Vols certainly have a reason to savor the win, as Kentucky came into the match-up boasting one of the best running backs in the SEC in Benny Snell.
That didn’t matter.
Following a game plan centered on stopping the run, Tennessee’s defensive front held Snell to just 81 yards on the day. The Vols also forced several tackles for loss to trim the Wildcats’ rushing total to just 77 yards on 35 carries.
Kentucky’s inability to run the ball was due in large part to Vols linebacker Darrell Taylor, who hammered Wildcat quarterback Terry Wilson on four sacks.
On one particular tackle, Taylor came off the ball virtually untouched. He quickly found his way into the backfield, saying his “eyes lit up like Christmas trees” before he pounded Wilson into the cold, stiff grass of Neyland Stadium.
Taylor’s sacks summarized the havoc that Tennessee wreaked on the Wildcats’ offense, but it was a catch by Callaway that ignited the most momentum of the day for the Vols.
Near the end of the first half, Tennessee held possession and a 10-0 lead. Looking to simply “run the clock out” according to Pruitt, the Vols put together few successful plays before arriving at the Kentucky 39-yard-line with nine seconds remaining.
Guarantano took the snap, avoided the rush and launched a Hail Mary to the back of the end zone, and Callaway did the rest to give Tennessee a 17-0 halftime lead and an extra dose of momentum heading into the locker room.
Callaway’s catch proved the play of the day, as the grab added to a whopping 412 total yards for a Vols offense that started strong.
For the Vols’ first score, Brent Cimaglia chipped a 19-yard field goal for a 3-0 Tennessee lead. Until that point, both teams had traded punts, and momentum seemed unlikely for each offense.
Following the field goal, the teams endured another stalemate before Ty Chandler found the end zone from three yards out, putting Tennessee up 10-0 before Callaway’s catch added to the Wildcats’ deficit.
For the Vols’ final score, offensive coordinator Tyson Helton employed a bit of trickery.
With his team on the 2-yard-line, Guarantano faked a handoff, dropped back and dumped a floater to a wide-open Dominick Wood-Anderson in the back of the end zone.
It was a play that Guarantano said made him “pretty excited” as he knelt under center.
Kentucky’s defense called out what they thought was coming, but according to Guarantano, the Wildcats’ suspicions of a “sweep” were dead wrong.
“They had no clue,” Wood-Anderson added with a grin.
The completion cemented Wood-Anderson as a threat for the Vols’ offense, but it also put Guarantano one step closer to a record he didn’t even know about until after the game clock reached zero.
Toward the end of the third quarter, Guarantano flung a pass that will go down in the annals of Tennessee football history. He notched his 144th consecutive throw without an interception, passing former Vol quarterback Casey Clausen, who made his 143rd consecutive turnover-free throw in 2003.
Guarantano looked perplexed when asked about the record.
“What record was it?” he asked, leaning forward to absorb the information.
The record was repeated, and the Vols’ field general gave a smile and an easy reply.
“That’s pretty good then, huh?”
While Wilson connected with tight end C.J. Conrad for a 19-yard strike to put Kentucky on the board, the Vols’ lead proved too much to overcome by that point. Marquill Osborne added two late interceptions off errant passes by Wilson, and the Wildcats’ fate was sealed.
Now, Tennessee looks toward its final two games as the Vols attempt to carve a path to bowl eligibility.
“The University of Tennessee is supposed to be in bowl games,” Pruitt said. “That’s the expectations here.”
Those expectations remain paramount, but Pruitt also noted that his team will take the night to enjoy a win that further cements Tennessee’s status as a program that’s rebounding much more quickly that most people expected.
“We’re 2-0 in November.. we’re going to enjoy this win, and then we’ll go back to work,” Pruitt said. “There’s a lot of football left to be played.”
And so there is.
Next week, Tennessee takes on Missouri in its first out of two attempts to clinch a bowl berth. Kickoff against the Tigers is slated for 3:30 p.m. ET, and the game can be viewed on CBS.
Edited by Kaitlin Flippo
Featured image courtesy of Jake Nichols