The Kentucky Wildcats rushed for 302 yards in last season's game against visiting Tennessee, but few in orange were complaining afterward.
A fourth-and-goal stop of quarterback Lynn Bowden with 1:17 remaining by Daniel Bituli and Ja'Quain Blakeley allowed the Volunteers to preserve a 17-13 triumph that evened their record at 5-5. It also served as the third straight victory in an eventual six-game winning streak that closed out the year.
"We did some good things, and obviously it ended in a really good goal-line stop," Tennessee senior defensive tackle Matthew Butler said this week on a Zoom call. "I thought we played together and ran after the ball and limited our mistakes going against some good athletes. We played a good game last year, but that's last year.
"They have a different quarterback and different personnel, so we've got to go out there, execute and win the game again."
The No. 18 Volunteers (2-1) will face the Wildcats (1-2) at noon Saturday inside Neyland Stadium, with the matchup on SEC Network having the potential for a second consecutive close call. Last year's outcome marked just the second one-possession game in this rivalry since Mark Stoops became Kentucky's coach in 2013.
"We were proud of the effort with Lynn not having much experience at that point in time playing that position," Stoops said when asked about last year. "He really gave us an opportunity, that's for sure. He's a dynamic player who made some incredible runs. We were very efficient and came up a couple of yards short, but that's a credit to them."
Said Tennessee counterpart Jeremy Pruitt: "It was a hard-fought game, and both teams played extremely hard. We just got a break there at the end and came out on top."
Bowden began last season as the top receiver target for quarterback Terry Wilson, but Wilson tore the patellar tendon in his left knee during the second game against Eastern Michigan. Stoops turned to Bowden's athleticism, and Bowden helped deliver an 8-5 record (3-5 Southeastern Conference) that culminated with a win over Virginia Tech in the Belk Bowl.
Against the Vols, Bowden rushed 26 times for 114 yards to lead the team. Chris Rodriguez added 12 carries for 81 yards and Kavosiey Smoke eight for 58, but only Rodriguez is back for this year's pairing, with Bowden now with the Miami Dolphins and with Smoke nursing a rib injury.
Wilson is healthy again, giving the Wildcats a run threat at quarterback for a fifth consecutive season, making them unlike any other SEC East team during this stretch. Stephen Johnson started the string after filling in early in the 2016 season for an injured Drew Barker, who didn't have the running element.
"It just kind of evolved a little bit from there," Stoops said. "I think it just fits us and the way we've been running the ball and incorporating some quarterback run game, but that's not the end-all be-all with us. We've been very physical. We've been able to throw the ball. We've played good defense, but we have to throw the ball to have more balance in our offense.
"I felt like we were working hard in that direction last year, but then Terry got hurt, and we had a wide receiver at quarterback."
Kentucky averaged 278.8 rushing yards last season, with Bowden winning the Paul Hornung Award as the nation's most versatile player, but averaged just 113.7 through the air. The Wildcats have upped their passing average to 154.3 through three games this season under fifth-year coordinator Eddie Gran to complement their 212.3 yards on the ground.
"Eddie Gran does a really nice job offensively of creating a lot of multiples and a lot of different formations of running the football," Pruitt said. "It's got some triple-option flavor to it and really stretches you all over the field. They find ways to create explosive plays in the throw game and have athletic quarterbacks who can extend plays.
"They're just a physical football team."
Kentucky has one of college football's most experienced offensive lines, and it will be looking to atone for last year's result at Kroger Field. The Wildcats grabbed a 13-0 lead less than 13 minutes into last season's encounter but never scored again.
"Last year, we were able to get a few sacks, and we also stopped the run well enough to win the game," Butler said. "This year we want to compound on that and stop the run even better, even though they have some different personnel and different guys. Ultimately, no matter whether they pass the ball 48 times a game or run the ball 60 times a game, we're just trying to go out there and play some good football and win the game."
At first glance
The chaotic coaching search following the 2017 regular season that ended with Phillip Fulmer's hiring of Pruitt included former Vols athletic director John Currie offering the job to Mike Leach, who is now in his first season at Mississippi State. Leach's debut with the Bulldogs was a stunning 44-34 win at LSU, but the past two weekends have yielded a surprise setback to Arkansas and last weekend's lackluster 24-2 loss at Kentucky.
Kentucky racked up six interceptions against the Bulldogs, with Pruitt having studied that this week.
"I guess that's my first time to see a Mike Leach offense kind of up close and in person there in studying the tape," Pruitt said. "Kentucky did a lot of eight-man drops and had their eyes on the quarterback and broke on the ball. There were some tipped balls, and they just showed that they had some ball-hawking ability there in the back end."
Odds and ends
Two of Tennessee's assistants, defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley and defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh, were together at Kentucky under Mark Stoops from 2013-15. Pruitt on offensive linemen Jahmir Johnson and Jerome Carvin: "They've both practiced, so they'll probably continue to be game-time decisions. It was positive that they could practice, because they couldn't practice last week." Redshirt sophomore linebacker J.J. Peterson has left the team, and whether he will return is unknown. Pruitt on Sunday's scrimmage for players who haven't competed in games: "It's something that we will continue to do. I just think there was too much good that came out of it, and we have the numbers to do it, so we need to continue to do that." The Vols received a commitment Thursday from Christian Charles, a 6-foot-1, 185-pound athlete prospect from Chestatee High School in Gainesville, Georgia.