LEXINGTON, Ky. — Tennessee snapped a streak of 15 quarters without a touchdown, but the Volunteers failed to score one when it mattered most.
Kentucky's four fumbles gave Tennessee ample opportunity to stretch out a second-half lead. Instead, the Vols sputtered as snowflakes began to fall in a crushing 29-26 loss to the Wildcats on Saturday night at Kroger Field.
Tennessee's second loss to Kentucky since 1984 came at a time when fifth-year head coach Butch Jones desperately needed a victory to quell a monsoon of criticism over his job performance.
Wildcats quarterback Stephen Johnson returned from a third-quarter injury to lead his team on a game-winning drive that he capped by leaping over the goal line with 33 seconds left. Johnson's score gave Kentucky its first lead of the fourth quarter and ignited a crowd of 57,543 that watched the Wildcats improve to 6-2 overall and 3-2 in the Southeastern Conference.
The loss dropped the Vols to 3-5 and 0-5, ensuring that their final record will be a regression from the eight-win regular-season totals Jones posted in 2015 and 2016.
Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano's Hail Mary pass found receiver Jeff George as the final two seconds ticked off the clock. George's last gasp for the goal line came up 3 yards short.
"Four turnovers and we weren't able to get (enough) points off of them," Jones said. "We weren't able to capitalize on our great field position. Missed field goals. Led in time of possession and controlled the ball; couldn't stop the quarterback at the end of the game in the zone read. Nine penalties, inexcusable.
"We talk about details, accountability and toughness. It starts with me and it starts with our coaching staff."
Jones was asked after the game if he expects to have the support of athletic director John Currie moving forward in a season that still has four regular-season games left.
"Absolutely," he said.
The offense, which had been anemic in three straight losses entering Saturday, snapped out of a funk in some ways by posting 445 total yards. But untimely penalties handicapped the unit once again.
An 80-yard touchdown run by Ty Chandler in the first quarter was wiped off when Josh Smith was called for holding.
Later on the same series, a second-and-goal at the 1-yard line turned into a second-and-goal at the 6 when Coleman Thomas was whistled for a false start. The series ended in a field goal.
In the second quarter, Tennessee got off its own goal line with a 22-yard completion from Guarantano to Ethan Wolf that was promptly called back because of an illegal-formation penalty against redshirt senior left tackle Brett Kendrick.
Early in the fourth quarter, Tennessee led 23-21 when Guarantano threw the football away as pressure closed in. He was called for intentional grounding when he threw the ball into the first row of the stands. The penalty stifled the momentum of a second straight turnover forced by the Tennessee defense and forced Brent Cimaglia to kick his fourth field goal of the night.
Cimaglia, a true freshman, made four of his six attempts in the game. His second kick of the fourth quarter was directed into the wind and was blown off course. It would have given the Vols a 29-21 lead and insulated them from the Johnson touchdown and subsequent two-point conversion that ultimately did the Vols in a few minutes later.
The first five minutes brought plenty of action, including offsetting unsportsmanlike penalties against both teams that ultimately caused two Tennessee starting defenders, linebacker Daniel Bituli and defensive back Rashaan Gaulden, to be ejected later in the game when they picked up individual unsportsmanlike-conduct calls.
"I ain't ever seen nothing like that," said senior defensive tackle Kendal Vickers, who forced two fumbles.
Benny Snell fumbled on Kentucky's first play from scrimmage, giving Tennessee's offense a free trip to the red zone and an early opportunity to end a streak of scoreless quarters that was at 14.
Three plays netted 3 yards, and Cimaglia's field goal put the Vols up 3-0.
Kentucky drove quickly down the field with Snell running three times for 37 yards and a touchdown to atone for his earlier blunder.
The Wildcats' second fumble of the quarter — this one by Sihiem King — again gave Tennessee favorable field possession. Fifteen yards later, Cimaglia attempted a third field goal, this one from 44 yards, that clanged off the left upright and dropped into the end zone.
Three trips to Kentucky territory — including two to the red zone — and the Vols had just six points to show for it in the first half.
Contact David Cobb at email@example.com.