Lexington, Q. (NWN) — Even for a fast-paced team, Tennessee’s efficiency against No. 18 Kentucky was worth watching.
In particular the less time required for Hendon Hooker to move the volunteers up and down the field.
Hooker threw a career-high four touchdown passes, including a 6-yard insurance score, to Cedric Tillman at the start of the fourth quarter, and the Tennessee held on Saturday night to prevent the Wildcats 45-42 from a two-game skid.
The Volunteers (5-4, 3-3 Southeastern Conference) emerged from a bye to strike quickly in a back-and-forth game between boundary rivals, with a total of 1,073 yards. He needed just four plays and 37 seconds to score his first two TDs, covered 35 yards in 16 seconds for a go-forward field goal before halftime, and another go-forward touchdown in the third quarter. Used only 37 seconds on the way.
Walls was routed 612-461 and held the ball for only 13:52, but made the most of it in front of a sold-out crowd in hostile territory. Many spectators were barely seated when Hooker threw his first TD pass to Javonta Peyton on the first snap of the game.
“We scored very fast on some big plays and when we didn’t, we still get the ball into the plus-red zone area and fumble,” said Tennessee coach Josh Huepel. “It’s really unique in how the game really unfolded.”
Hooker’s final TD proved to be the biggest for Tillman with 11:40 remaining as Kentucky (6-3, 4-3) found Isaiah Cummings within a field goal on Will Lewis’ 24-yard touchdown toss. The Wildcats got one last chance after a missed field goal from Chase McGrath, but failed to take advantage, turning the ball down with 29 seconds left.
It was Tennessee’s first win over a ranking rival since 2018, also against Kentucky.
Alonte Taylor came up with Tennessee’s biggest defensive game, saving 6:23 in the third, fully reading Lewis to jump a route to a touchdown for a 56-yard interception return that gave the Volunteers their first. Gave a 10-point lead. Kentucky pulled to 38-35, but Hooker responded with a 6-yard scoring pass to Tillman that provided breathing room.
Hooker completed 15 of 20 passes for a career-best 316 yards with TD to Javonta Peyton, Welles Jones Jr., tight end Jacob Warren and Tillman. Jabari Smalls ran for a 37-yard TD as Tennessee bounced back from loss to then-numbers. 13 Mississippi and then-No. 4 Alabama, to avoid consecutive defeats to Kentucky for the first time since 1976–77.
“In my opinion, they are the best achieving corps in the country,” Hooker said of their goals. “He made big plays when needed, and if it’s 1-on-1, it’s automatically a mismatch.”
A graduate transfer from Virginia Tech, Hooker topped his previous best of 311 yards against Virginia in 2019. He threw three TDs in Alabama two weeks ago.
Lewis threw 372 yards and three touchdowns for Kentucky, remaining competitive with several long, time-consuming drives between a remarkable 99 snaps. He also ran for two points. But the Wildcats’ defense couldn’t slow the high-speed offense of either Hooker or the Volunteers, who scored three consecutive second-half goals to stay ahead.
“Very hard loss,” said Kentucky coach Mark Stoops. “Can’t believe I’ve been a part of that kind of one. Good in so many ways but not so good at other things.”
do it all
Lewis returned with pinpoint throws and versatility in some respects, most notably during a three-play sequence in the second quarter in which he completed a 31-yard pass, caught a 15-yard pass and made an 8-yard jump for TD . He also interrupted a defender for a lead of 5 yards in the third.
Kentucky’s home loss will probably cost the Wildcats at least a few spots in the poll—and possibly their top 25 rankings as a whole.
Tennessee moved the ball virtually at will against the Kentucky defense, which just yet couldn’t keep it. Hooker was strong with his hand, contributing some crucial runs as well, helping the Volunteers finish with 145 yards on the ground. But completing three passes for 35 yards in 16 seconds to set up McGrath’s go-forward, 35-yard field goal, as the first half ended, was his most effective order.
Kentucky dominated in almost every statistical category and had climbed the long drives that had their heels in their heels. The Wildcats also picked up the pace with a 21-14 lead. But none of that mattered because the defense couldn’t slow Tennessee down, and the offense couldn’t hold up.
Tennessee hosts top-ranked Georgia on November 13.
Kentucky visits Vanderbilt in last place in its SEC finale on November 13.
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