Photo via Lexington Herald-Leader
No. 19 Kentucky heads to Knoxville Saturday to face third-ranked Tennessee inside Neyland Stadium. The Wildcats are looking for a marquee win coming off its bye week while the Vols are looking to remain unbeaten on the season.
Each week, Rocky Top Insider will take you behind the scenes with a question and answer with a media member who covers Tennessee’s opponent.
This week, The Lexington Herald-Leader Kentucky football beat writer Jon Hale discussed Kentucky’s impressive defense, its struggles in the run game and much more.
What were the expectations for Kentucky entering the season and how have they lived up to them to this point?
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With two 10-win seasons in the last four years, expectations for Kentucky entering the year were as high as they’ve been in decades. Players made it clear in the summer the goal was to win the SEC East. They were ranked in the preseason AP poll for just the fifth time in program history and were picked to finish second in the East by reporters. With Will Levis generating buzz as a likely first-round pick in the 2023 NFL draft, there was real hope for a New Year’s Six bowl game.
Technically, those goals are still on the table, but Kentucky needs Tennessee and Georgia to stumble to remain in the SEC East race. The loss at Ole Miss was frustrating because it felt like Kentucky was the better team but made too many self-inflicted mistakes. The South Carolina loss can be explained by Levis not playing, but that performance was just not good enough. Beating Mississippi State has restored some momentum, but fans know this team has some issues. Struggles along the offensive line have been particularly concerning. Kentucky may be the underdog this week, but there’s a fair amount of pressure to upset at least one of Tennessee and Georgia to salvage all that summer excitement.
Kentucky struggled to run the ball earlier in this season. Has Chris Rodriguez’ return to the lineup changed that?
It definitely has helped. Rodriguez doesn’t go down on first contact very often, so he has a habit of turning runs that look like they are going nowhere into productive gains. He had a huge game against Mississippi State, which was just the second time he and Levis have played together this season. That being said, the offensive line is still a concern. That group had its best game against Mississippi State, but there have not been a ton of holes for Rodriguez or any other running back for most of the season.
How would you assess Will Levis’ play to this point in the season?
On paper, Levis’s numbers might not look like a guy who is being routinely projected to be a top-10 pick next spring, but he passes the eye test. Levis can make all the throws. He is still too turnover prone, but, again, the offensive line struggles have to be taken into account. Kentucky ranks 125th nationally in sacks allowed per game. It’s kind of remarkable Levis is able to hang in the pocket to make some contested throws as often as he does considering he has to know hits are coming. Those hits are starting to take a toll too. Levis dislocated the middle finger on his non-throwing hand at Ole Miss and injured his foot, causing him to miss the South Carolina game. He returned against Mississippi State then hurt his left (non-throwing) shoulder in that game. The South Carolina game offered a real glimpse at how important Levis is to Kentucky because the offense was terrible without him.
What is the strength and the weakness of Kentucky’s defense?
Kentucky plays a style that really tries to take away big plays, sometimes at the expense of letting teams dink and dunk their way down the field. It ranks 19th in fewest plays of at least 20 yards allowed (25). A lot is going to well for the defense, as evidenced by its national rankings, but it has been particularly impressive to see some of the in-game adjustments. The defense surrendered just 10 points total in the second half against Florida, Ole Miss and Mississippi State. If there’s a clear weakness, it’s probably the pass rush. Coordinator Brad White doesn’t use a bunch of aggressive blitzes, but Kentucky ranks outside the top 100 in sacks and tackles for loss. The pass rushers probably need to get home more often to have a chance against Tennessee and Georgia.
Is there a matchup you think Kentucky can exploit against Tennessee?
Tennessee’s passing defense numbers are inflated by opponents having to throw so much while playing catchup, but assuming Levis is healthy, Kentucky has the talent at quarterback and wide receiver to take advantage of a team that ranks 130th of 131 in passing yards allowed per game. Wide receivers Tayvion Robinson, Barion Brown and Dane Key all impressed in the first half. Kentucky does a good job of getting Robinson and Brown the ball in space to take advantage of their speed and elusiveness. Key has several highlight-reel worthy catches on deep balls through tight coverage.
Is there a matchup you think Tennessee can exploit against Kentucky?
I think the timing of this game helps Kentucky, which is coming off a bye. The fact that Tennessee might be looking ahead to Georgia helps too. Even if Kentucky controls the clock like it wants too, Tennessee’s offense can score so fast it might not matter. I think it’s closer than expected, but I can’t pick against Tennessee right now.
Tennessee 35, Kentucky 28