KNOXVILLE - The Kentucky Wildcats rewrote a lot of football history Saturday afternoon inside Neyland Stadium, tormenting Tennessee 34-7 for their first victory as visitors over the Volunteers since Ronald Reagan's first term in 1984.
It was Kentucky's largest margin of victory over Tennessee ever in Neyland, and it matched the largest win by the Wildcats over the Vols. The first 27-point blowout transpired by a 27-0 score at Lexington in 1935.
"Obviously I could not be more proud of our football team," Wildcats eighth-year coach Mark Stoops said after tasting just his second win in the historically lopsided series.
Tennessee was quite the generous host, providing the Wildcats three first-half interceptions and one first-half fumble that enabled Kentucky to take a 17-7 halftime lead despite managing just 75 yards while allowing 203. It was a very different story after intermission, as Kentucky strengthened on both sides of the ball to finish with a 294-287 edge in total offense.
The No. 18 Vols used three quarterbacks, with starter Jarrett Guarantano throwing two interceptions that were returned for scores. Guarantano's career mark as the starter slipped to 12-17, and there is no guarantee the fifth-year senior will take the first snap next Saturday when Alabama invades Neyland Stadium seeking a 14th consecutive series win.
"I would say it's undecided," Vols coach Jeremy Pruitt said when asked about the quarterback situation. "When you lose 34-7, I would say with everybody in our organization we have to look and see about what went wrong. We could make changes at any level.
"There are a lot of areas we need to improve, obviously, but it's more about creating the right habits. It's how you practice every single day and the work ethic. It's on everybody within our organization to improve that."
After playing turnover-free the first two weeks of the season in wins over South Carolina and Missouri, the Vols have lost seven in their past two games. Kentucky, meanwhile, has collected nine interceptions the past two games, including three that have been returned for touchdowns.
"Our guys are playing with good vision," Stoops said. "We are playing better team defense. Everybody is in position, and guys are playing hard.
"When you're in good position and guys are playing hard, good things will happen."
An announced crowd of 22,519 attended Saturday's surprise slaughter.
Kentucky did not have a first-half drive longer than 25 yards but opened the third quarter with an 11-play, 76-yard march that consumed five minutes and 49 seconds of game clock and culminated with a 1-yard touchdown pass from Terry Wilson to Allen Dailey and a 24-7 Wildcats lead.
"They didn't do anything different in the second half," Vols sophomore linebacker Henry To'o To'o said. "They ran the same offense we had seen throughout the week. Nothing really changed. We just didn't execute."
A scoreless 27-minute first quarter offered a Tennessee opening possession in which the Vols drove 39 yards to the Kentucky 30 before backtracking. Vols junior cornerback Bryce Thompson forced and recovered a fumble at the Kentucky 45 midway through the quarter, but Tennessee gave it back moments later at the Wildcats' 27 when Guarantano and Ty Chandler collided in the backfield.
Wildcats cornerback Kelvin Joseph's 41-yard interception return for a touchdown at the 12:47 mark of the second quarter opened the scoring, with Joseph stepping in front of Cedric Tillman and returning the Guarantano miscue down the sideline.
"It was a bad throw, and I think it's a bad call," Pruitt said. "Throwing a 54-yard out for 4 yards. What's the risk versus reward there?"
On Tennessee's ensuing possession, Guarantano drove the Vols from their 25 to Kentucky's 28, where he was intercepted by middle linebacker Jamin Davis, who had open field and rambled 85 yards to the end zone and a stunning 14-0 lead.
"We were throwing four verticals and they dropped in zone coverage, so we should have thrown the checkdown and didn't," Pruitt said. "We got a little greedy there."
J.T. Shrout replaced Guarantano but had his first attempt intercepted by safety Tyrell Ajian, who made a diving snag at Tennessee's 37. The Wildcats drove to the 12 of the Vols before settling on Matt Ruffolo's 30-yard field goal and a 17-0 lead with 6:18 before halftime.
Guarantano then returned and played until early in the fourth quarter, when he was replaced by freshman Harrison Bailey.
When asked who was determining the quarterback during that second-quarter slide, Pruitt said, "That's kind of all of us just trying to figure out what's the best thing."
After losing to Kentucky for just the third time in 36 meetings, Tennessee must quickly regroup for the Crimson Tide. Pruitt and players were asked afterward if the team has lost some confidence after getting outscored 61-7 since halftime of last week's 44-21 loss at Georgia.
"I probably should be concerned if you look at the way we played in the second half," Pruitt said. "I think I know what we can do offensively to fix some of our issues, but defensively, there is a point where you just say, 'It doesn't matter where the other team gets the ball.' It's a mindset, and we're not there yet. We've got to be more dominating up front and improve playing man-to-man."
Said To'o To'o: "Our confidence stays high. We're a confident team, and we know how good we can be. We know the talent and the culture we have with this 2020 team and that as long as we stay together as one, we'll be fine."