Vols must ‘win in the phone booth’ against Wildcats, Chris Rodriguez

Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee safety Trevon Flowers, left, defensive tackle Omari Thomas (21) and linebacker James Banks close in on Alabama running back Jahmyr Gibbs during the Vols' 52-49 win on Oct. 15.

It's been a quarter-century since Tennessee linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary suited up as a linebacker at Appalachian State, but Kentucky has the offense Jean-Mary would love to face if he ever gave it one last go.

Why? The Wildcats have an old-school element right now like no other program in the Southeastern Conference.

"If you're asking me when I played 100 years ago, of course you want to meet people in the phone booth and see who is going to be able to win in the phone booth," Jean-Mary said this week in a news conference. "Nowadays, you have to be prepared for every offense, and you have to be equally as good versus the pass and the run, but we want to pride ourselves on stopping the run.

"When a team comes in and rolls up their sleeves, and you know they want to run the football, you should get excited as a linebacker. You should get excited as an entire defense."

While Tennessee was owning college football's spotlight with its 52-49 win over Alabama on Oct. 15, Kentucky was doing what it does best during a 27-17 defeat of Mississippi State. The Wildcats rushed for 239 yards and threw for 239 yards against the Bulldogs, with fifth-year senior running back Chris Rodriguez pounding out 31 carries for 197 yards and two touchdowns.

Kentucky enters Saturday night's showdown against undefeated and third-ranked Tennessee with a 5-2 record, a No. 19 ranking and coming off an open date.

"The last time out we were more efficient and were able to kind of be who we are," Wildcats coach Mark Stoops said Wednesday. "We need to be able to run the ball and have balance, and Chris played really well. It was also probably the most consistent our offensive line has been."

Since being suspended the first four games due to a May arrest on a DUI charge, Rodriguez has rushed 72 times for 395 yards (5.5 yards per carry) and three touchdowns in the past three contests. The 5-foot-11, 224-pounder from the Atlanta suburb of McDonough is fourth in Kentucky annals with 3,135 career rushing yards.

"He's the catalyst for what they do on offense," Jean-Mary said. "Will (Levis) is a tremendous quarterback with a tremendous skill set, but I think their whole identity is running the football. He's one of the best running backs in the SEC. He's a downhill running back who doesn't mind running through arm-tackles and creates yardage by creating space for himself.

"He doesn't bounce outside and try to make you miss. You kind of know where he's going to be and know how he is going to be when he shows up. He runs angry. He runs with authority, and we're going have to do a great job of meeting his aggression with our own."

The Vols will counter Rodriguez with the nation's No. 8 run defense, yielding 90.9 yards a game. That average dips to 84.5 in Tennessee's past two SEC contests, against LSU and Alabama.

"We know they are a pro-style offense," Vols senior safety Trevon Flowers said. "They're going to huddle, come off the ball and try to be physical, so we have to tackle well, use our pads, stay low and play football. We have to play hard."

Said senior edge rusher Byron Young: "We will have to fill our gaps. They try to bloody your nose and just beat you in the dirt, so we are going to have play stout defense and play behind our pads."

For Tennessee, it's an old-school opponent that will require an old-school mentality.

"It's an unbelievable challenge," Jean-Mary said. "Sometimes they can have three or four tight ends on the field."

The 'Beer' topic

From 1925 through 1997, the Tennessee-Kentucky winner took home the "Beer Barrel," with Peyton Manning hoisting it after the Vols' 59-31 win in Lexington in 1997. Several days before the 1998 game, however, Wildcats starting center Jason Watts was charged with DUI following an accident that killed two passengers in his truck — Arthur Steinmetz, a Wildcats defensive lineman who was redshirting that season, and Eastern Kentucky student Scott Brock.

The schools decided not to bring the barrel to that 1998 meeting, and it hasn't accompanied the contest since. The barrel is believed to be somewhere in Knoxville, but second-year Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said Wednesday that he hasn't seen it.

"I've been involved with games that have different types of trophies and games that haven't, and it doesn't change the importance of the game or the rivalry," Heupel said. "For fan bases, obviously, it can be something to point to."

A historic win

While Tennessee is looking to extend its best start to a season since its 1998 national championship run, Kentucky could notch the highest-ranked victory inside an opponent's campus stadium in program history. The highest such win for the Wildcats is their 24-20 triumph at No. 4 Penn State in 1977.

Odds and ends

Kentucky has played 11 straight games allowing 24 or fewer points since last season's 45-42 loss to the Vols in Lexington. ... Stoops was 12-26 through his first 38 games with the Wildcats and is 52-29 since.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.