Fireworks were everywhere tonight in Lexington. Hendon Hooker cemented himself as one of the best quarterbacks in the nation as Tennessee pulled off a statement win over a stumbling Kentucky team.
JaVonta Payton went 75 yards on the opening play from scrimmage, setting the tone of things to come in what turned out to be a high-scoring affair in Lexington on Saturday night.
This wasn’t your usual shootout. The first half time of possession was dominated by Kentucky, 24:06 to 5:54, as the Wildcats churned out long, methodical possessions while Hendon Hooker was having his way with Kentucky’s secondary, throwing a pair of 70-plus yard touchdowns in the first half. It was a good recipe for success for Mark Stoops’ squad. Do what they do best and run the football. Quarterback Will Levis had an efficient first half, completing 14 of his 21 passes for 136 yards. He threw and ran for a touchdown as Kentucky took advantage of poor tackling and gap filling by the Vols.
However, we are watching a superstar being born before our eyes, and his name is Hendon Hooker. Hooker threw three touchdowns in the first half, one being the aforementioned 75 yard touchdown on the quick pass out to JaVonta Payton. He aired one out to Velus Jones Jr. for 72 the very next drive, giving the Vols an early 14-7 lead.
Tennessee’s 72-yard touchdown from Hendon Hooker to Velus Jones Jrpic.twitter.com/y2TrSQs37j— SEC Mike (@MichaelWBratton) November 6, 2021
Hooker was 11-of-13 for 261 yards and three passing scores at half, good for an obscene 24.7 adjusted yards per attempt.
Out of the gates in the second half, it looked like the momentum for both teams in the first half carried over. Kentucky got the ball first and marched down the field, this time with some pep in their step going no huddle, with Will Levis punching it in from two yards out for his second rushing score of the game as Tennessee’s tackling woes continued.
A short field following a great return by Jimmy Holiday set up a 45 second, three-play, 49-yard scoring drive for the Vols as Jabari Small broke free and broke some ankles en route to a 37 yard touchdown. 31-28 Tennessee.
What happened next is where the tide turned completely for the Vols. Will Levis’s turnover bug reared its ugly head, and this time there were cookies for everyone! Alontae Taylor read Levis like a book, taking it back 56 yards for a pick-six.
“You don’t lose to Kentucky.”— Houston Kress (@VolRumorMill) November 7, 2021
- Alontae Taylor, King pic.twitter.com/XcslfNHzRy
Now leading by 10, the momentum fully swung back in favor of Tennessee. However, Will Levis and co. fought back, and the two teams exchanged scores back and forth until the end.
Prior to the INT, Kentucky had no trouble moving the ball, and after the pick, they continued to punish Tennessee on third down. Levis made the Vols pay for a third down holding penalty, finding Wan’Dale Robinson for a 15 yard touchdown, and just like that, Kentucky was back in it, trailing 38-35.
The Wildcats defense got one of few stops in this game on Tennessee’s ensuing drive, but a false start on Kentucky stalled out their next drive and a chance to tie or take the lead.
The two teams once again exchanged scores, and a missed Tennessee field goal set up Will Levis and Kentucky with a shot to tie or win the game on their final possession.
Kentucky moved the ball well on their final drive, on fourth-and-24 following a Mark Stoops unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after the officials missed a very obvious facemask on Will Levis on third down. Kentucky somehow converted it, though, but they eventually stalled out, giving Tennessee a 45-42 upset win on the road.
Hendon Hooker didn’t have to do much in the second half as the defense and Jabari Small did some of the scoring for him, but he looked phenomenal in this game. He finished the game going 15-of-20 for 316 passing yards and four touchdowns. That’s good for 19.8 adjusted yards per attempt. His counterpart, Will Levis had a great game in his own right, completing 31 passes for 372 yards and three touchdowns on 49 attempts. It was that pick-six, however, that proved to be a real difference maker. It put Tennessee up 10 and had Kentucky fighting back from behind all second half and eventually coming up just short.
Wan’Dale Robinson continued to show why he’s amongst the best playmakers in the country, hauling in 13 receptions for 166 yards and a score. Tennessee’s Velus Jones Jr. reached the century mark as well, catching five passes for 100 on the dot and a score. Cedric Tillman is turning into a consistently great wideout for the Vols, as well. He hauled in six passes for 79 yards and a touchdown, and he’s now eclipsed 70 receiving yards in four of Tennessee’s last five games.
As for the defense, well, there wasn’t much outside of Alontae Taylor’s house call. Kentucky sacked Hooker five times and forced the only three-and-out of the game. As for Tennessee’s defense, they allowed 612 total yards of offense, and Kentucky converted 12-of-17 third down attempts. Their tackling was ghastly all night as well. Luckily for them, their offense bailed them out and they were opportunistic at the right time.
Kentucky has now lost three straight after starting the season 6-0. It’s been a rough stretch for the Wildcats, and this loss has to sting just a bit extra. Lucky for them, hey get Vanderbilt, New Mexico State, and then finish up against in-state rival Louisville, so a nine-win season is still very much in reach.
For Tennessee, this has been a roller coaster ride of a season, but all things considered, a positive one for Josh Heupel’s first year. Given all the turnover and turmoil and injuries, the Vols sit at 5-4 with a real shot to win seven games. They get Georgia next which...yeah, but they finish up against South Alabama and Vanderbilt. This team is going bowling, and they’ve been damn fun to watch getting there.