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Cats not good enough in disappointing loss to Volunteers

Will Levis leaps into the end zone during a loss to Tennessee Saturday night at Kroger Field (Dr. Michael Huang)

LEXINGTON, Ky. (KT) — Kentucky simply couldn’t stop Tennessee.

A year after limiting the Volunteers to just a touchdown in a 34-7 victory in Knoxville, Tennessee more than made up for it and handed the Wildcats their third consecutive loss with a 45-42 triump Saturday night in a game where the Wildcats turned in their best offensive performance of the season.

Kentucky ran 99 offensive plays and piled up 612 yards, but it was Tennessee’s quick-strike offense and big plays, especially early in the contest, that resulted in the Wildcats’ third consecutive Southeastern Conference setback after opening the season with six straight victories.

“It was an absolutely incredible football game,” Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops said. “I’m extremely disappointed for our players and our fans. It was a very difficult loss. I’m not sure I’ve been part of one quiet like that. We were so good in so many ways and absolutely not good enough in so many different ways as well.”

Kentucky quarterback Will Levis, who struggled in a 31-17 loss at Mississippi State a week ago, turned in his best all-around performance as a Wildcat and threw for 372 yards and three touchdowns. Levis also rushed for 37 yards and scored a pair of rushing touchdowns. He threw an interception that resulted in a 56-yard return for a touchdown in the third quarter, but Stoops stopped short of blaming Levis and said the Wildcats had a lot of “great things to build on offensively.”

“We haven’t had production like that (offensively) for some time and that was so good to see,” Stoops said. “Defensively, obviously we had some struggles and we’ve got to get some things fixed.”

Kentucky had a hard time adjusting to Tennessee’s passing game and had a hard time containing Vols quarterback Herndon Hooker, who threw for 316 yards and four touchdowns. The Wildcats sacked Hooker five times, but Hooker was on target when not under pressure, resulting in short scoring drives that kept Kentucky’s defense off balance for most of the night. Tennessee averaged more than 20 yards per completion and nearly 10 yards per play.

“A team like that puts an awful lot of stress on you with the vertical passing game,” Stoops said. “We couldn’t keep up with them. We didn’t tackle very good in space and we didn’t cover very good.”

Stoops, however, couldn’t complain about his team’s offensive unit, which tried its best to keep pace with the Volunteers. The Wildcats fared better offensively, Stoops said, than they did last week in Starkville.

“When we traded jabs or shots or whatever you wanna call it, and took a punch, I loved the way our team responded and came right back,” Stoops said. “Defensibly we did come up with some stops that gave us a chance and we came up a few yards short.”

Levis said the entire team shouldered the burden for the disappointing loss.

“It’s a team effort, regardless, win or loss,” the Kentucky quarterback said. “I could have done a lot of things to change the outcome of the game. … football is a weird game and at the end if the day, we have to play better as a team, both offense, defense and special teams.”

Going into the last three weeks of the season, Stoops isn’t worried about his team’s demeanor.

“We’ve been a part of so many games where we we’ve played good on one side of the ball, maybe defensively, and come up just a little bit short on the other side. We’re a team and so we’ll stick together.”

Gametracker: Kentucky at Vanderbilt, Saturday 7 p.m., SEC Network. TV/Radio: SEC Network, UK Radio Network.

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Keith Taylor
Keith Taylor is an award-winning journalist who has covered Kentucky athletics since 1995. He is the sports editor of Kentucky Today and his work appears in 12 daily newspapers as well as various weekly and web sites throughout the state. Reach him at Keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or twitter @keithtaylor 21.

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