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Nichols: In Kentucky Victory, Tennessee Showed Its Best Improvement Yet — Learning How to Win

Several times this season, we’ve seen Tennessee come achingly close to victory — only for the door to be slammed shut. But on Saturday night, the Vols were the ones doing the slamming.

Big-time players (and coaches) make (and call) big-time plays in big-time games.

While that paraphrased saying is often overused, it still holds true for any football team worth its salt.

No matter the setbacks, no matter the setting, no matter the strangeness that may have led to pivotal game-changing moments, the teams that win the most are the ones with a sideline full of players and coaches who come through in sequences that count the most.

And on a cold November night in Lexington, Kentucky, those players and coaches were dressed in Tennessee orange.

In their wildest game this season, the Vols (5-4, 3-3 SEC) pulled out a 45-42 win over No. 18 Kentucky (6-3, 4-3 SEC) to notch the first Top-25 win of the Josh Heupel era — Heupel’s first signature win on Rocky Top.

It also snapped an 11-game losing streak against Top-25 opponents, dating back to 2018.

The result didn’t come without its hiccups, although Kentucky’s offensive output may render more of a groan from Tennessee’s defensive staff.

The same can be said for Kentucky’s improbable, laughable and, frankly, quite absurd conversion on 4th-and-24, as UK — down three at the time — kept its fourth-quarter hopes alive after an odd unsportsmanlike conduct call on Mark Stoops put the Wildcats way behind the sticks.

Still, the Vols regrouped. With time ticking, they made three straight stops, and, on 4th-and-10, Tim Banks dialed up a blitz that forced an incomplete pass from Kentucky quarterback Will Levis.

Hendon Hooker kneeled the rest of the way, cementing a sterling performance in a win that puts UT one victory from bowl eligibility.

If the Vols do go bowling, and I suspect they will given the games left on this schedule, then they’ll need the resolve they showed on Saturday — which proves once again just how far this team has come.

Regardless of the grocery store jokes, Kroger Field is a tough place to play. The fans are rowdy, the turf is hard, and the situation gets even tougher for visitors on a night like Saturday, as players’ breath drifted above their helmets. A win there is big, especially considering the stakes going into the latest Beer Barrel battle.

And those stakes made the Vols’ victory more gratifying after the Wildcats curb-stomped Tennessee last year in Knoxville.

Even more gratifying, if a bit concerning? The fact that UT put up 45 points in less than 14 minutes of total possession — while allowing 612 total offensive yards from a Kentucky team that had the ball for 46 out of the 60 allotted minutes of game time.

Pulling out a win with statistics that laughable would have been incomprehensible before this season — but not this year. Not with an offense that zoomed its way to two touchdowns in the first four plays of the night, and a coach who’s willing to push the boundary at just the right time.

After the Vols’ defense generated a key fourth-down stop late in the first half, Tennessee — then tied with Kentucky at 21 — was left with 16 seconds on the clock before the break.

At that point, Josh Heupel could have slammed on the brakes and kneeled to go into the locker room. Jeremy Pruitt likely would have.

But that approach doesn’t fit what Heupel is about.

Instead, Hooker found Cedric Tillman on three straight passes, and the Vols moved 35 yards in 14 seconds to set up Chase McGrath for a 43-yard field goal that put UT ahead 24-21 at the break.

And what was the Vols’ margin of victory? Three points.

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In the second half, Tennessee scored three more times — once on a smooth Jabari Small run to go up 31-28, again a wild pick-six from Alontae Taylor for a 38-28 advantage, and again on a Tillman corner route for a 45-35 lead.

Of course, Kentucky responded each time when faced with a 10-point deficit.

Still, at every turn, UT made or called just enough winning plays to pull a rabbit out of its hat.

And, in the end, Tennessee lived up to Taylor’s mantra from this week: “You don’t lose to Kentucky.”

Never mind that the Vols’ defense was porous most of the night, as UK running back Chris Rodriguez gouged the Vols for 109 yards on 22 touches for an average of five yards per play.

Never mind that Will Levis took the ball 15 times for 47 yards and two touchdowns, as he threw 31 completions on 49 attempts for 372 yards and three scores — four if you count the one to Taylor.

Never mind that Kentucky converted on 4th-and-Are-You-Kidding-Me during a drive that should have featured a face mask penalty on Tyler Baron.

In the end, the only imbalance that mattered was on the scoreboard: Tennessee 45, Kentucky 42.

That’s the mark of a team with willpower — of one that knows what it takes to win, and one that will snap and clear from previous errors to focus on the task at hand.

It’s the mark of the coach who’s instilled that mindset and, now, has the first marquee win of his Tennessee career.

And it’s the mark of a quarterback who has finally started gaining some much-deserved notoriety, even if it’s taken nine games into the season to arrive.

Hooker was masterful against Kentucky, throwing 15 completions on 20 attempts with a career-high 316 yards, a career-high four touchdowns and, for yet another week, no turnovers.

Per Tennessee, Hooker now has 21 touchdowns on the season — surpassing the 20-score mark set in 1996 by one Peyton Manning.

Let me reiterate that again: Hendon Hooker, after transferring from Virginia Tech and appearing unlikely to start during the preseason, has more touchdowns in a single season than Peyton Manning did when he was at Tennessee.

Now, does that mean he’ll go scorched earth against a Georgia defense that — much like the Braves’ offense — has smothered, covered and essentially destroyed every opponent in its wake? Probably not, although his efforts could still keep things interesting.

Moreover, Hooker’s improvements should not be dismissed, and neither should Tennessee’s quick, continued success under Heupel.

At several points this season, we’ve seen how his culture change has translated to a difference in response.

But on Saturday, this Tennessee team proved that it’s not just learning how to respond — it’s learning how to win.

That’s not a bad lesson to learn with one premier matchup and two cupcake games still left in this season.

Cover photo via Jake Nichols