Finish Lesson Hammered Home in Loss at UT

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Rushing for well over 443 yards against Tennessee, Kentucky followed a seemingly foolproof blueprint for victory in the Southeastern Conference.

Benny Snell, Jr. knows better than to think anything of the sort is guaranteed.

“It’s the game of football,” Snell said. “The SEC’s a good conference, so no matter how many yards we had, both teams are there to battle.”

The Wildcats (5-5, 4-4 SEC) came out on the wrong end of this battle, falling to the Volunteers (7-3, 4-3 SEC) by a score of 49-36. The box score for the game looked fairly even, with UK outgaining Tennessee 635-599 and winning the time-of-possession battle, but that neglects one key area.

“The difference was in the red zone,” Mark Stoops said. “They capped it off with touchdowns; we capped it off with some field goals.”

To Stoops’ point, Tennessee scored touchdowns on all three of its red-zone drives. Kentucky managed just two touchdowns, three field goals and one fumble its six times inside the 20-yard line, only serving to shine a spotlight on the difference between the way UK played inside and outside the red zone.

“Our kids played physical and I think they ran hard,” head coach of the offense Eddie Gran said. “I think we had some good things downfield blocking and all that was positive, but to be great, to get over the hump to where we need to be, we gotta finish. We’ve gotta finish in the red zone, we’ve gotta score touchdowns and not field goals, especially when you’re on the road, and then you can’t turn it over.”

The one turnover – other than Stephen Johnson II’s Hail-Mary interception at the end of the first half – was by Snell, who fumbled on a third-down run inside the Tennessee five-yard line. The star freshman was wearing his disappointment on his sleeve afterward.

“The loss is more (the reason for disappointment) than what the fumble was,” Snell said. “I want to win. That’s my main thing. It’s just doing whatever I can to win for the team.”

Snell has done exactly that all season, helping drive UK’s growth into a prolific rushing team that came within three yards of the school record with 443 yards, led by Boom Williams' 127.

“There are some things to build on here,” Gran said. “There are some good things that we’re going to take from this, but at the end of the day (three) points (in the red zone) isn’t good enough on the road, not in this league. Not now, not ever.”

But to pin Saturday’s loss on the offense would be unfair. Tennessee averaged better than 10 yards per play against UK, which Stoops credited in large part to dynamic senior quarterback Josh Dobbs. Dobbs threw for 223 yards and three touchdowns and added 147 yards and two touchdowns on the ground for good reason.

“I think they’re a big, physical team and Dobbs is a real talent,” Stoops said. “He’s been around for a long time and really made some quality runs.”

That’s not to say UK can’t play better.

“The aggravating pieces is we have to do the things we’re capable of doing,” Stoops said. “It gets back to the things I touched on early in the year and some of that showed, reared it’s ugly head today as well with guys not executing their responsibilities at times. That’s where we have to grow and get better in all sides from when it’s offense, defense, special teams. When we have a play that’s there, we have to make them.”

Not helping matters was a rash of injuries that cost UK precious snaps from numerous starters, most notably Jordan Jones. The Cats’ leading tackler missed most of the afternoon with back spasms.

Jones’ status will be evaluated throughout the week, but it’s full steam ahead regardless. UK has a game to play next Saturday.

“We just gotta learn to finish the game on all sides of the ball: offense, defense and special teams,” Johnson said. “We gotta move on now to Austin Peay.”