When No. 21 Tennessee travels to face Kentucky in a Southeastern Conference clash on Saturday in Lexington, the Volunteers and Wildcats are seeking the finishing touch.
Both are coming off games in which they led SEC opponents in the second half before imploding.
In Tennessee’s 34-20 loss at then-No. 11 Alabama, the Volunteers (5-2, 2-2 SEC) blew a 13-point advantage as they were outscored 27-0 in the second half.
In Kentucky’s 38-21 home defeat to Missouri, the Wildcats (5-2, 2-2) entered the fourth quarter in the lead before surrendering the game’s last 18 points.
Kentucky has had a bye week to recover from its collapse and to address other issues. After opening 5-0 and rising to a No. 20 rank, the Wildcats have yielded 89 points while losing their past two games, to No. 1 Georgia and then Missouri.
“You’ve got to repair, reflect and readjust,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said on Monday of the bye. “Most importantly, it gives us a good chance to look at ourselves.”
The Kentucky defense has excelled against the run, but stopping the pass has been problematic. The Wildcats allow opponents to complete 67.7 of their attempts, ranking No. 125, and they are No. 127 in completions allowed (24.8 per game).
The Wildcats have struggled against teams that play quickly and quarterbacks who can improvise. Tennessee and its mobile quarterback, Joe Milton III, present a stylistic challenge, Stoops said, as an “elite tempo team.”
The Kentucky offense boasts Ray Davis, who leads the SEC in rushing (111.6 yards per game) and yards per carry (7.0). However, the Wildcats have been hindered by an anemic passing attack.
Transfer quarterback Devin Leary has shown little of the stuff that made him the 2022 ACC preseason player of the year at North Carolina State. In the past three games, Leary has completed just 33 of 72 passes for 317 yards, with five touchdowns and two interceptions.
Tennessee arrives in Lexington after an uncharacteristic second-half meltdown. In three seasons when leading at halftime under Josh Heupel, the Volunteers had won 22 straight times.
“I could sense the players’ disappointment this morning,” Heupel said on Monday. “At the same time, when we walked out of the team meeting room, you gotta cut it clean. You gotta take the lessons moving forward. But we gotta go.”
Last week in Tuscaloosa, Tennessee laid the groundwork for toppling Alabama for the second straight year as Milton threw two touchdown passes to spark the Volunteers to a 20-7 halftime lead.
However, the Crimson Tide owned the second half. They stopped Tennessee twice on downs and got a soul-crushing defensive play in the fourth quarter when Milton fumbled and Jihaad Campbell made a 24-yard scoop and score.
The Volunteers’ inability to convert on fourth down has been telling. In their two losses (against Florida and Alabama), they are 0-for-6 on fourth down.
On Monday, Heupel dismissed a reporter’s suggestion that the Volunteers employ the “tush push” strategy popularized this year by the Philadelphia Eagles.
“At the end of the day, we gotta find a way to pick up the first down,” Heupel said. “We’ve used a lot of different formations. We’ve been under center, been in (shotgun). We’ve used it all.”