Orange Crush — Vols hold off UK, break Cats’ hearts again

Published 5:01 pm Monday, October 30, 2023

By Keith Taylor

Kentucky Today

One loss has suddenly spiraled into a three in a row for Kentucky.

Tennessee survived a close call at Kroger Field for the second time in three years and escaped with a 33-27 win Saturday night for its third consecutive triumph over its border rival. The No. 21 Volunteers (6-2, 3-2) edged the Wildcats 45-42 in an offensive shootout two years ago and rolled to a 44-6 win last year in Knoxville.

The Wildcats (5-3, 2-3), who have lost three consecutive following a 5-0 start, find themselves scrambling to become bowl eligible with one month remaining in the regular season. Kentucky plays three of its last four games on the road. The lone remaining home encounter is against No. 9 Alabama on Nov. 11.

“It is very disappointing to come up on the wrong side of that game,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. “What a great night, great atmosphere, great football game. Very disappointed that our coaches and I couldn’t find a few more plays to pull off the victory. I am very proud of our team for their commitment to getting better.”

Coming off a bye week and a disappointing 38-21 loss to Missouri two weeks ago, the Wildcats spent the open date on improving the passing game, eliminating penalties and mistakes, and it showed against the Volunteers.

Kentucky quarterback Devin Leary turned in his best performance of the season and threw for 273 yards and two touchdowns. Leary received plenty of help from his receivers, namely the sophomore duo of Barion Brown and Dane Key.

The two receivers combined for 12 catches for 171 yards and two touchdowns. Brown, a Nashville native, hauled in five passes for 58 yards. Key had seven catches for 113 yards and a TD.

Leary said the loss was frustrating and not easy to swallow.

“Regardless who plays well, the overall goal is to win the game. I’ve always looked at football that way, whatever coach needs me to do, whatever the team needs me to do, I’m willing to do it,” he said. “Walking away with a loss today puts a sour taste in your mouth a little bit but now its back to the drawing board, you can’t praise yourself too much for coming off a something that ended in a loss, there’s still room for improvement and we got to get back to work tomorrow and build off this.”

Despite the improved performance on offense, the defense faltered when it mattered. Trailing 26-24 with 7:30 remaining, Tennessee produced a cushion on Dylan Sampson’s 12-yard touchdown run on a third-and-10, giving the Volunteers a 33-24 advantage.

Stoops took more risks than usual to shake the team’s losing skid, but the Wildcats were stopped after going for it twice on fourth down. Kentucky also missed a 53-yard field goal by Alex Raynor that sailed wide left in the fourth quarter with the Cats trailing 26-24.

On the team’s next possession, Raynor connected on a 28-yard field goal with 4:24 remaining for the final margin. Tennessee was about to run out the clock.

Despite the loss, Stoops remained optimistic about the remainder of the season.

“I don’t need any motivation to get back to work tomorrow and neither does our team and our staff,” he said. “It hurts because we invest a lot, our players invest a lot, and our fans invest a lot. And so, it hurts. And very disappointed. But not discouraged one bit.”