KNOXVILLE — Tennessee's dormant offense exploded for one of its best performances of the season.
The Volunteers needed every yard and point, too.
In a game whose box score more resembled a Big 12 game rather than a Southeastern Conference clash, Tennessee remained in the race for the SEC championship game with a 49-36 shootout win against Kentucky in Saturday's noon start at Neyland Stadium.
The Vols and Wildcats combined for 1,234 yards of offense and 58 first downs.
"It was exciting to watch overall," Tennessee linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. surprisingly acknowledged, "but definitely as a defensive player we want to limit it as much as we can. We have to make those corrections and move forward."
The SEC East race is now down to the Vols and Florida, and if Tennessee wins its last two games against Missouri and Vanderbilt and the Gators lose at LSU next week, the Vols would play in the SEC title game in Atlanta for the first time since 2007.
"We're in a two-game playoff," coach Butch Jones said.
Quarterback Josh Dobbs and running backs Alvin Kamara and John Kelly combined for 369 rushing yards as Tennessee won by double digits despite allowing Kentucky to pile up 443 rushing yards and 635 total yards.
"I'm a defensive guy, so I like to see the stat line looking more like 100 or 150 yards," defensive end LaTroy Lewis said. "Sometimes it's frustrating because you want to minimize those plays and those yards as much as possible, but that's our mentality, to snap and clear every play.
"Whether you get a sack one play or give up a 50-yard run, you've got to snap and clear and get it out of your head, because there's still more football to be played."
Tennessee's defense came up with timely stops in the red zone, though, as Kentucky kicked three short field goals and Benny Snell Jr. fumbled on a run inside the 5-yard line.
"We knew they were going to make some plays, but we knew we had to buckle down," Kirkland said. "If we forced field goals, we knew our offense was going to keep putting up points and the game could get away from them if they were going to be limited to field goals. I feel like that was our mindset coming in, and it really helped."
Tennessee expected Kentucky to run straight at its patchwork defensive line, but the Wildcats, led by the dynamic running ability of Snell and Stanley "Boom" Williams, found most of their success on the perimeter as the Vols botched run fits and missed tackles.
"You've got to look back and see what you did well," Lewis said. "We wouldn't be doing ourselves any justice if we didn't give ourselves credit. We played extremely well in the red zone, but giving up yards is unacceptable.
"That's also something we have to be critical of ourselves about and get in the film room and ask ourselves why, how and what can we do better to correct it."
Every time the Wildcats scored, though, the Vols had an answer. Tennessee had six pass completions of at least 15 yards and totaled 14 plays of 10-plus yards. The Vols averaged 10 yards per snap and faced only five third downs.
"We were just playing complementary football out there," Kelly said. "We can't really count on the defense to make a stop every single series, but if they were going to make a stop, we have to capitalize on it and score touchdowns in the red zone or score touchdowns whenever they gave us the ball back on downs.
"It was really important for us to be able to go out there and get all the points we needed. They were running the ball really effectively. They just couldn't finish in the red zone."
Dobbs accounted for 370 total yards and five touchdowns, and Kamara and Kelly, the backfield tandem when the Vols rolled up 684 yards (282 rushing) at Texas A&M last month, averaged 8.5 yards per carry.
Josh Malone, Ethan Wolf and Josh Smith all caught touchdown passes.
With the depleted defense giving up yards and big plays in bunches, Tennessee may need more performances on offense like Saturday's to sustain its hopes of reaching Atlanta.
"You can't let the intensity affect your level of play," Dobbs said. "You have to go out and play confidently, play with a lot of energy, have fun and enjoy the game, but expect to win when you step on the field. It was definitely cool to be in the picture.
"We came as freshmen wanting to get Tennessee back in this picture and be in the position we are today, so now we have to take advantage of this opportunity."
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