Vols maul Wildcats to set up monster matchup with Georgia

Kentucky running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. (24) dives for yardage as he is tackled by Tennessee defensive lineman Roman Harrison (30) during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)
Kentucky running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. (24) dives for yardage as he is tackled by Tennessee defensive lineman Roman Harrison (30) during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

KNOXVILLE -- Neyland Stadium was dressed up for an early Halloween on Saturday night, and Tennessee wasn't about to frighten easily.

Wearing the combination of black helmets, black jerseys and black pants for the first time in program history, the No. 3 Volunteers obliterated No. 19 Kentucky 44-6 before 101,915 fans, most of whom were wearing orange and black. Tennessee sixth-year senior quarterback Hendon Hooker outplayed Wildcats counterpart and potential top NFL pick Will Levis by completing 19 of 25 passes for 245 yards and three touchdowns for a healthy efficiency rating of 197.9.

Hooker also added an 8-yard touchdown run at the 3:58 mark of the third quarter that extended Tennessee's lead to 37-6 as the Vols cruised to their 35th win over Kentucky in the past 38 meetings. Saturday marked the first matchup of ranked teams in this border rivalry in 71 years, but it wound up being a complete mismatch, as the Vols amassed 422 total yards while holding the Wildcats to an abysmal 205.

"I thought our defense controlled and dominated the line of scrimmage," Vols coach Josh Heupel said. "We played suffocating defense. It was fun to watch those guys, and our special teams did a great job, too. Offensively, we did enough to score enough points to get a good win."

Junior receiver Jalin Hyatt caught two of Hooker's touchdown tosses and now has 14 through Tennessee's 8-0 start, breaking the program's single-season record of 13 set in 1997 by Marcus Nash, who was Peyton Manning's top target. Hyatt finished with five catches for 138 yards and the two scores.

Levis completed 16 of 27 passes for only 98 yards and was intercepted three times, but Hooker didn't view Saturday as any competition between the two.

"Not really," Hooker said. "I just try to come in every day and do my job to get the ultimate goal, and that's winning."

Tennessee's resounding triumph coupled with No. 1 Georgia's 42-20 defeat of Florida in Jacksonville heightened the stage for next weekend's showdown between the Vols and the Bulldogs in Sanford Stadium, which has never housed a matchup of top-three teams before. The highest-ranked meeting ever "Between the Hedges" was No. 3 Auburn's 13-7 topping of the No. 4 Bulldogs 13-7 in 1983.

When asked early Saturday evening about Heupel's Vols, Georgia coach Kirby Smart said, "They have a perfect storm going for his offense, and when he has that, it is really, really hard to stop."

On Tuesday night, the first release of the College Football Playoff rankings will transpire, and Tennessee, Georgia (8-0) and Ohio State (8-0) have stated impressive arguments to be at the top.

"I thought we were very dialed in to the process this week," Heupel said. "Good teams get better throughout the course of the season, and this team has got to get better. Our best football is still ahead. There are a lot of things we can get cleaner at."

A 31-yard touchdown pass from Hooker to Hyatt with 15 seconds before halftime enabled the Vols to take a 27-6 lead into intermission, and their first possession of the second half resulted in Chase McGrath's 29-yard field goal that made it 30-6 at the 8:57 mark.

The Vols needed just five plays to take a 7-0 lead, striking on a 55-yard pass from Hooker to Hyatt, and the Tennessee defense forced a quick three-and-out. Penalties marred Tennessee's second possession, however, and Chris Rodriguez rushed five times for 40 yards on Kentucky's second drive and scored from three yards out to pull the Wildcats within 7-6.

Vols defensive tackle Da'Jon Terry blocked Matt Ruffolo's extra point, and Rodriguez wound up with only 64 yards on the night.

"It wasn't anything schematically that we changed after that," Heupel said. "We misfit a couple of things on that drive, and he got going to the second level, which is an issue with him. The penetration on the edge and in the interior, too, throughout the game forced him to bounce some things and not get started."

Tennessee took its third drive 75 yards in 15 plays, converting two two fourth-and-1 situations along the way and grabbing a 13-6 lead on the opening play of the second quarter on a 2-yard run by Princeton Fant. The rushing score was the fourth in three games for the sixth-year senior tight end, but the Vols blew a chance at a 14-6 advantage when they were penalized for holding on the first extra-point try and McGrath pushed the longer attempt to the right.

Jabari Small had eight rushes on Tennessee's lengthy possession, but Jaylen Wright got the next drive going with a 35-yard run over the right side. Wright would score from a yard out to cap the eight-play, 77-yard march, giving the Vols a 20-6 lead with 11:12 before halftime.

Tillman's return

Saturday marked the return of fifth-year senior receiver Cedric Tillman, who missed the previous four games with a high-ankle sprain. Tillman had four catches for 22 yards.

"Cedric did a good job throughout the course of the game," Heupel said. "We kind of had him on a pitch count, but he's had two really good weeks of practice. He's been itching to play, but we wanted to make the right decision for him short term and long term."

What a difference

In Tennessee's 45-42 win at Kentucky last season, the Vols gave up 12 third-down conversions in 17 chances. On Saturday, the Wildcats were just 2-of-13 in such opportunities.

"That's the situation you want to be in defensively," Heupel said. "You've got to take advantage of that and get off the field. We were matching things out better and playing tight coverage, and we were able to get to the quarterback, too, and make him uncomfortable."

Odds and ends

Tennessee is 7-1 against the spread this season, failing to cover only against Florida. ... Hooker extended his school record to 20 consecutive games with at least one touchdown pass. ... Tennessee recognized its SEC championship baseball and basketball programs during the second quarter. ... The only inactive players for the Vols -- excluding season-ending injuries -- were freshman quarterback Tayven Jackson and redshirt junior linebacker Kwauze Garland.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.

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