No. 18 Kentucky looks to turn around effort vs. Tennessee

Oct 16, 2021; Athens, Georgia, USA; Kentucky Wildcats running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. (24) runs against the Georgia Bulldogs during the first half at Sanford Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Losing the physical battle at No. 1 Georgia is one thing. Doing so two weeks later at Mississippi State, which as long as Mike Leach is there will always be known as a pass-first team, is another thing.

Little wonder that Kentucky coach Mark Stoops is expecting more from his team Saturday night when the 18th-ranked Wildcats welcome Tennessee to Lexington, Ky., for a Southeastern Conference battle.

At 6-2 overall and 4-2 in the league, Kentucky is aiming for a strong November that would put it in position for a good bowl berth. Not to mention put a smile on its coach’s face again. Stoops didn’t mince words when asked about last week’s 31-17 loss at Mississippi State.

“Played like crap,” he said. “Not very many good things this past week for sure. Fell short in all areas. Not very pleased with our performance. Rough day at the office. They played harder than us, they were more physical.”

Not only did the Wildcats allow Will Rogers to complete 36 of 39 passes, setting an SEC single-game record with a completion percentage of 92.3 percent, but they were also outgained on the ground 94-66. Kentucky’s offense gained only 216 total yards and coughed up four turnovers.

One bit of good news is that the Wildcats are back at home, where they are 5-0, including an Oct. 2 victory over then-No. 10 Florida.

“We’re not perfect, but I have a lot of confidence in the leadership of this team and we’ll respond,” Stoops said. “There’s no reason to feel sorry for yourself. It’s up to us to get back to who we are.”

Which means getting back to their identity as a run-first offense that wins games up front. Chris Rodriguez Jr. has 809 yards on the ground, but he was held to 34 yards at Mississippi State and lost a fumble.

Meanwhile, the Volunteers (4-4, 2-3) might be as healthy as they’ve been in a while. They were idle last week after playing eight straight weeks, culminating with a 52-24 loss on Oct. 23 at then-No. 4 Alabama.

Tennessee used big plays to hang with the Crimson Tide before wearing down in the fourth quarter, allowing the game’s final 21 points.

First-year Volunteers coach Josh Heupel said the week off did his team a lot of good.

“Big part of it was just getting our guys healthy,” he said. “I think we made some progress in that way during the bye week and (we’re) looking forward to … building towards (the Kentucky game).”

One player who had to benefit from the bye week is quarterback Hendon Hooker. The Virginia Tech transfer has played efficiently, but he also took a beating in losses against Ole Miss and Alabama. Hooker is completing 68.7 percent of his passes for 1,578 yards and a 17-2 touchdown-interception ratio while chipping in 417 yards on the ground.

Tight end Jacob Warren said Hooker’s confidence radiates throughout the huddle.

“It is not really cockiness, but he knows his preparation is right and he does things the right way,” Warren said. “He’s a good player, and he knows we trust him.”

Kentucky won last year’s meeting 34-7 in Knoxville. The Wildcats are shooting for their first back-to-back wins over the Volunteers since 1976-77.

–Field Level Media

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