The Big Orange Defense forced four turnovers and Ty Chandler broke Tennessee’s touchdown-less streak, but it wasn't enough as the Vols dropped their sixth conference game in a row in a 29-26 loss.
The game came down to the final play, when redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano heaved a Hail Mary pass to wide receiver Jeff George, who caught it inside the ten-yard line, but was immediately tackled to the ground as time expired.
The Vols fall to 3-5 on the season, and 0-5 in SEC play.
"I've never through this in 30-plus years of how many games have come down to the wire," Jones said after the game Saturday. "You've just got to keep grinding. There's still a lot of football left to be played."
Guarantano finished 18 of his 23 passes for 242 yards, with no touchdowns or interceptions. He was sacked seven times.
Tennessee out-gained Kentucky, 445 yards to 371. Tennessee committed nine penalties for 54 yards, compared to Kentucky's four penalties for 44 yards.
On a positive note, Tennessee’s defense forced four turnovers. Two came in each half.
On the first play from scrimmage, Kentucky’s Benny Snell fumbled due to pressure by Tennessee’s Kendal Vickers, and Nigel Warrior recovered. In the same quarter, Warrior forced the ball out of Kentucky’s Sihiem King, and Shy Tuttle fell on the ball for the Tennessee turnover. Although King was ruled down on contact, video review overturned the play in Tennessee’s favor.
Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson left the game briefly due to injury in the third quarter. His backup, Drew Barker, fumbled on his first run of the game. Defensive back Rashaan Gaulden made contact; linebacker Elliott Berry recovered the ball.
Later in the third quarter, Vickers delivered a huge hit to Kentucky’s Garrett Johnson, causing the ball to come loose. Gaulden recovered the ball.
The Vols turned those four turnovers into four field goal attempts – three were good, one missed from freshman kicker Brent Cimaglia.
Ty Chandler became the first running back to rush for 100+ yards in a game since Jalen Hurd did it in 2014. Chandler finished the game with 120 yards on 22 carries.
"I thought our young running backs really stepped up," Jones said. "I thought all three running backs did a really great job. I was really proud of them - Ty Chandler, Carlin Fils-Aime, Tim Jordan - I thought all three of these individuals ran exceptionally hard tonight."
A first quarter touchback resulted in a skirmish between the Vols and the Wildcats. The officials responded by giving each player from every team unsportsmanlike conduct penalties.
Linebacker Daniel Bituli was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct later in the second quarter, and was subsequently ejected.
Rashaan Gaulden also exited the game due to an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in the waning minutes of the game.
"We're making way too many mistakes in critical stages of the game," Jones said. "But this team has not given up. It's very important there's a lot of pride in that room. There's a lot of pride in this coaching staff of getting back to a bowl game. That's what we want for our fans. That's what we want for our football program."
Tennessee entered the game without some of its most key personnel. Running back John Kelly served a one-game suspension for a marijuana possession citation; offensive lineman Jack Jones retired due to recurring injuries; Offensive lineman Marcus Tatum did not make the trip due to injury; Quinten Dormady has a shoulder injury that will require season-ending surgery.
Coach Jones said he feels like he "absolutely" has the support of Tennessee Athletic Director John Currie and administration moving forward, and hasn't felt any added pressure as the losses mount for UT.
"No, I coach for my job every single day," Jones said. "That hasn't changed since the minute I walked in here in Year One. That's always a mindset I've had."
The Vols will host Southern Mississippi next Saturday for their homecoming game. Kick off is set for 7:30 p.m. ET.