There were a myriad of reasons why Tennessee didn't get a handle on this game until the final six ticks of the clock, despite gaining the most yards by a UT offense since the Vols had 695 yards against Kentucky in 1997. Tennessee had two interceptions and both were very costly. The first was returned six yards for a touchdown by Ricky Abren and the second halted a UT drive in Kentucky territory in the second half. By contrast, Kentucky's only turnover occurred on fourth down on its last possession and didn't matter since a pass breakup would have accomplished the same thing and given UT the ball in better field position.
Tennessee came away from the red zone twice without points while Kentucky scored on three of four trips inside the Vols 20 yard-line. Although those stats seem insignificant when compared to the 606 yards of total offense UT compiled vs. Kentucky's 323, they actually represent a potential 28-point swing and negated what should have been an easy victory for the Vols.
The Wildcats also won the kicking game with a pair of blocked kicks, a 12.8 yard edge in net punting and a 9.1 net yard advantage in kickoffs. In summary: It's not enough to have better personnel you have to have better performance and make fewer mistakes than your opponent. That wasn't the case against Kentucky, but it does offer hope the Vols might find a way to overcome a superior Auburn squad with better execution and a strong kicking game.
Here's the top to bottom offensive ratings for the Tennessee-Kentucky game. Grades of 90-100 are regarded as championship quality. Grades of 80-89 equate to top 25 worthy, grades of 70-79 are average marks. Grades of 60-69 are passing but problematical. Any grade below 60 is considered failing. We have broken down the units this week to offense and defense. Special teams are also included in the defensive grades.
RUNNING BACKS (96) Tennessee's backs hit holes hard and ran more instinctively than they have in earlier games this season in which they approached the line at half speed and were halting in their style. The result was 204 rushing yards and an average of 5.1 yards per carry. Also the Vols only lost six yards on carries. Cedric Houston is playing the best football of his career, running with abandon and verve. He gained 127 yards in 24 carries, an average of 5.3 yard per attempt. Similarly, Gerald Riggs gained 52 yards in 10 carries, an average of 5.2 yards per attempt. The one-two punch at tailback worked better than any Vols tandem since Travis Henry and Travis Stephens in 1998. Houston also had three receptions for 35 yards. Riggs had one catch for 15 yards that jump started UT's game-winning drive and a 12-yard carry that capped it. Fullback Cory Anderson got a rare carry and scored a 22-yard touchdown. He also had two catches for 11 yards. David Holbert caught a pass for five yards. On balance, it was the best combined effort by UT's running backs in the 2004 campaign.
OFFENSIVE LINE (95) You don't gain 606 yards and 34 first downs without getting great play from the O-line. Tennessee averaged 7.3 yards per play and the line didn't allow a single sack. The Vols converted 9-of-16 third down opportunities and controlled the ball for 32:54 of the contest. In the decisive second half, the Vols had an advantage in time of possession of 18:52 to 11:08. That proved vital as Kentucky's defense appeared to fade down the stretch. The return of Jason Respert at center was a major boost, but the Vols were without the services of starters Michael Munoz and Cody Douglas which made the performance that much more impressive. Arron Sears is playing well despite being hampered by injury and Rob Smith is an absolute rock at left guard. Rich Gandy has stepped up to fill a void in UT's second-team depth chart.
QUARTERBACK (92) Rick Clausen proves the Clausen Clan is comprised of winners with astute understanding of the game. Outside of a couple of interceptions, Clausen threw crisp, precise passes on rhythm and distributed the ball to 11 different receivers. That type of diversity among his targets keeps every eligible receiver alert and involved while maximizing the potential of the offense. Clausen is compensating for his lack of a big arm by getting rid of the ball quickly and putting it position for the wideouts to run under the passes. He also leads backs with throws in such a way as to give them a chance to make yardage after the catch. The southpaw throws a tight spirial that's easy on the hands. He completed 26-of-41 passes for 349 yards and two touchdowns against Kentucky. That's one of the top 25 passing efforts by a UT QB ever which includes 11 games by Peyton Manning. No small feat for a QB starting only his third collegiate contest. Base on his performance it would be difficult to justify replacing Clausen going into next spring barring a postseason meltdown.
RECEIVERS (91) Robert Meachem had a career best and season-high 145 yards on five catches with a touchdown, including a 53-yard grab on a double pass from fellow wideout C.J. Fayton. It was the first 100-yard performance by a UT wide receiver this season and helps establish Meachem as that go-to target opponents will have to consider allocating double coverage against. In addition to his 53-yard throw former high school quarterback Fayton had four receptions for 45 yards including a splendid 33-yard diving catch. Tony Brown closed out his home career with four catches for 51 yards and a touchdown. Bret Smith continues to struggle with a foot sprain but still contributed two receptions for 40 yards. Freshman tight end Chris Brown, who is coming on strong down the stretch, had two catches for 19 yards. After hauling in a couple of touchdowns against Vanderbilt, Jayson Swain dropped two passes against Kentucky as well as catching two for 19 yards. Chris Hannon had one catch for 10 yards in a diminishing role.
OVERALL (93) An excellent overall effort from an offense that is clicking under the direction of operator Rick Clausen. The Vols have to avoid the big turnover but appears to be on the verge of putting together a big game. The question: Can they do it against a big-time opponent?