KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – The Homecoming festivities have subsided and its back to business for the Vols as they prepare for their penultimate road trip.
Tennessee faces Kentucky at Kroger Field in Lexington on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. (ET). The game will be broadcast on the SEC Network with Tom Hart (PxP), Jordan Rodgers (analyst) and Cole Cubelic (sideline) on the call.
Even with the Vols winning three of their last four outings, UT is focused on overcoming another strong defense against the Wildcats, which head coach Jeremy Pruitt regarded as one of the best in the SEC. UK is coming off of a 29-7 win over Missouri and ranks third in the league in pass defense (180.5 ypg) and fourth in opponent first downs, holding teams to just 18 per game.
“At Kentucky, with that identity they kind of play with, they are physical and tough,” Pruitt said at his Monday press conference. “They play together. They are very opportunistic. It will be a hostile environment, so we are looking forward to the challenge. But Kentucky has a team that is really talented and playing really well right now and we will have to be at our best to have a shot Saturday.”
A key to slowing the Wildcats will be containing converted wide receiver Lynn Bowden, Jr., who has stepped in at quarterback due to injuries. Bowden rushed for 204 yards and two touchdowns against Missouri on Oct. 26 to pick up his second SEC Offensive Player of the Week honor before UK went into its bye week.
“We need to win the line of scrimmage,” Pruitt said. “This will be a line of scrimmage game. We need to keep edges on the defense. When the ball is out in space, we need to be able to tackle one-on-one. We cannot give up one-on-one to a blocker defensively, you have to make two guys block you. And, we can’t let the ball be thrown over our heads.”
Defense Digs In
Early in the season, UT’s defense was plagued by inexperience and injury, but as the Vols look to even out their season record this weekend, things are starting to look more auspicious.
In back-to-back weeks, the Orange and White have had a defensive representative on the SEC’s weekly conference honor. This week, defensive back Bryce Thompson, who missed the first three games of the season, was named the league’s top defensive player after tying a school record with three interceptions in the Vols’ 30-7 win over UAB. Senior linebacker Daniel Bituli, who missed the first two games of the season, shared the same honor in Week 9 after smothering South Carolina ball carries for 15 tackles and returning a blocked punt for a touchdown.
Senior linebacker Darrell Taylor has also been a dominant pass rusher, pacing the SEC, along with two other players, with 6.0 sacks.
The Vols have also seen contributions from newcomers like Henry To’o To’o, a freshman linebacker, who has the second most tackles on the team (48).
“We had some guys who were injured at beginning of the year or didn’t play,” Pruitt started. “We were young. It was a recipe for not a whole lot of good. Our kids have come and our coaching staff has done a really nice job on coming to practice and buying in, competing hard.
“We have some good leadership on our team. Our guys have never flinched. They just keep working. They believe in what we are doing here. It is amazing that when you believe in something, you stay the course, and our kids believed.”
In the prior four-game stretch, UT’s defense has limited Mississippi State (10) and No. 1 Alabama (35) to season-lows in points, kept South Carolina off the board in the second half and only allowed UAB 63 yards on the ground.
Tennessee has the luxury of having two solid options at punter this season in redshirt sophomore Joe Doyle and sophomore Paxton Brooks.
Brooks has been the Vols starting punter over the past two games after Doyle started the first seven this season, and has been solid for Tennessee.
Increasing his total yardage each game he’s played, Brooks has averaged 44.0 yards per punt over the last two games. He also recorded seven touchbacks on kickoffs against the Gamecocks, matching his season high.
“Paxton has done a good job in practice to earn these opportunities,” Pruitt said. “It could change this week, so we’ll see. We’re going to play the guys who give us the best opportunity to have success. Fortunately for us, we have two pretty good punters, and there’s lots of competition there. It will make them better as they continue to grow and develop as football players.”