CORY GUNKEL'S TAKE
For a team that has acted up in class a few times but was never really a behavioral problem, Tennessee finally turned in another all-A performance Saturday against Kentucky. The Vols started out in the worst way possible, driving down the field with ease before Josh Dobbs was stripped by C.J. Johnson, who promptly returned it 77 yards for his Piesman Trophy moment to put the Vols down 7-0. After that, though, Tennessee put its game face on and curb-stomped Kentucky to continue three decades of dominance over UK. The offense exploded like it hasn't all season, scoring touchdowns in seven of its next nine drives after fumbling away the first drive. The Vols finished with 482 yards, including the longest pass play from scrimmage since Tyler Bray hit Justin Hunter for an 81-yard score in 2011. Yeah. And this was all done on a night in which Jalen Hurd, Tennessee's 6-foot-4, 240-pound bulldozer on skates, notched just 61 yards on the ground.
The Vols' defense came out guns blazing. Darrin Kirkland is a freshman who is absolutely starting to get it, and that's scary news for the rest of the SEC. Kirkland turned in six total tackles, one tackle for loss and an interception (his first as a Vol). The pass rush was superb as Derek Barnett looks to be hitting his groove and that's great news for the Vols. He accounted for both of the Vols' sacks and looked like the Derek Barnett we were supposed to see prior to the 2015 season. Kentucky accounted for less than 400 yards and Patrick Towles was under constant pressure. The only real setback the D faced was when Emmanuel Moseley was ejected for targeting, and that really affects next week's game against South Carolina more than it did the one the Vols walked through Saturday night. The Wildcats were just 2-of-13 on third downs and Tennessee's defense sliced through UK's offense like a machete through thin vines.
Special teams is the golden child of this Tennessee team and against Kentucky, it turned in perhaps its most epic performance. Aaron Medley bounced back from a dismal 0-3 performance against Alabama to knock down his only field goal attempt from 44 yards, which was honestly probably the most impressive performance of the night all things considered. Oh yeah, and Tennessee housed a kickoff return and punt return for a touchdown. That's become ho-hum in the grand scheme of things when you have one of the most unbelievable special teams unit in the country led by potential All-American kick returner Evan Berry. But Cam Sutton wanted to join Berry and sprinted 81 yards for a punt return touchdown right after his teammate. It was the most complete game Tennessee has played all season against FBS competition. This report card needs to be shown to mom ASAP.
Special teams: A+
DANNY PARKER'S TAKE
Some in the Bluegrass State poked fun at Danny Parker on social media after a prediction that had Tennessee winning by 21 over their Kentucky Wildcats.
Beat reporters are paid for what they do for a reason...we watch football — and the Volunteers are playing better than any other team in the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division right now.
The Big Orange flexed its muscles against the Wildcats, backing up my pregame praise, scoring 28 unanswered points midway through the game en route to sending the Kentucky faithful to the parking lot long before the third quarter was even halfway complete.
It's not so much that Kentucky is a bad football team. Tennessee is simply playing quality football right now and is starting to find itself after playing a nation-leading 40 true freshmen from last season and this one combined.
Even after Kentucky brought its crowd to its feet with a 77-yard fumble return for a touchdown via lineman Cory Johnson, the Vols didn't frown or fade, which is another sign the future is bright with this ball club. This squad punches adversity (overcame 21-point deficit versus then-No. 19 Georgia, too) in the face and asks it if it wants anymore.
A patchwork offensive line paved the way for 249 rushing yards, which was actually about 51 yards below what I expected but an impressive output nonetheless, even with guard Jashon Robertson gone after just one series and tackle Brett Kendrick didn't make the trip. Four different Vols netted 50 yards rushing or more.
The Tennessee defense fed off its front four the entire evening as sophomore Derek Barnett led the way with two sacks. Junior Corey Vereen impressed for the second game in a row (2.5 sacks at Alabama) with two tackles for loss and two quarterback hurries. The secondary had its best tackling performance of the year.
Hard to say enough impressive things about Tennessee's return game. Evan Berry continues to make his case for the nation's best kick returner. Cameron Sutton weaves through traffic like he's a New York-based taxi cab driver who's pine scent air freshener is on fire.
Special teams: A+
JOSH WOODWARD'S TAKE
Butch Jones said in his post-game press conference that this was a complete game for his Vols. Well, I agree totally.
Offensively, the run game was sluggish, but Kentucky stacked the box to stop it and Joshua Dobbs picked them apart with his arm and legs when needed. The passing game was spot on. The third down play calling was excellent, as was the players execution. Dobbs did have the interception on the tipped ball, but it wasn't completely on him.
Defensively, the Vols stopped a high powered offense in its tracks. Kentucky can score and Tennessee held them to only 14 offensive points. The defensive line got great pressure throughout the entire game and kept the Wildcats scrambling. I like the linebacker play from Darrin Kirkland. That interception was a great read by the freshman. Good defensive gameplan by the Tennessee staff.
Special teams was special again tonight. A kickoff and punt return for a touchdown is excellent. Coverage was good also. You can really tell this team has improved by how good the special teams is.