Tennessee’s offense looks for spark against Wildcats
KNOXVILLE — It’s been a demoralizing month of football for Tennessee.
Between two blowout losses to rivals and a loss to South Carolina on the final play — all marred by the fact UT has failed to score a touchdown in over a calendar month — the Vols are ready to get back on the right track.
UT gets that shot against a Kentucky team that enters today’s game (7:30 p.m.; TV: SEC Network) coming off a 38-point loss of its own. Tennessee (3-4, 0-4 Southeastern Conference) is winless in league play and searching for a spark on offense. Kentucky (5-2, 2-2) has lost two of three SEC matchups and looks to shore up a defense that has allowed 79 points the past two outings.
Can the Vols take advantage of a UK defense searching for consistency?
“You look at Kentucky and they’re 5-2 right now, a really, really good football team right now,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “(Kentucky head coach) Mark (Stoops) has done a very, very good job.
“They’re a very, very good football team. It’s going to be a great challenge for us. … Our players know they’re going to have to play a solid football game.”
Breaking through got a little tougher this week with the news that star running back John Kelly is suspended from the game as a result of a misdemeanor drug-related charge.
Kelly is the SEC’s No. 4 rusher at 87.9 yards per game with six touchdowns. The junior has accounted for 870 total yards of offense this season, comprising 42.89 percent of Tennessee total yardage. He was being counted on to challenge a UK run defense ranked third in the conference (123.6 yards) but coming off a game in which it allowed the Bulldogs to rush for 282 yards.
“I understand that my actions were immature and selfish and I realize they have an impact on more than just myself,” Kelly said in an apology on Twitter. “I take full responsibility and accept the punishment that I have been given.”
Kelly has dominated the backfield this season, garnering nearly 55 percent of the carries, but his absence brings freshman Ty Chandler to the forefront. Chandler is Tennessee’s second-leading rusher with 118 yards on 27 carries. Sophomore Carlin Fils-aime and freshman Tim Jordan could also see time in the backfield.
Kelly’s absence puts an even greater emphasis on quarterback Jarrett Guarantano. The redshirt freshman has two starts to his credit, but has done little to end UT’s offensive struggles. Guarantano and his receivers have failed to get on the same page and Guarantano has been sacked 11 times in two games.
The Vols will have their work cutout for them against a Kentucky team that has controlled the turnover battle this season. The Wildcats are plus-six in turnover margin this season while the Vols minus-three.
“There’s some things we’ve done to hurt ourselves but I think that our confidence is still here,” Guarantano said. “I think the offensive line still has confidence in me and the receivers to make plays. … I think that we’re ready to explode these next couple of weeks and play well.”
Production on offense will go a long way to helping the Vol defense stay in the game in the second half. The Vols have looked good in the first half during SEC play, but have tired after the break. With little depth up front, extended drives from Guarantano and the offense will help stop Kentucky’s sub-par offense.