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Front Page - Friday, October 27, 2017

Vols' motivation going forward? Bowl game, saving Jones’ job

Butch Jones will be Tennessee’s football coach Saturday night against Kentucky in Lexington.

It could be his last as the Vols’ coach.

Jones is on a sizzling hot seat after the Vols (3-4, 0-4 SEC) were dominated by No. 1-ranked Alabama 45-7 last Saturday. Speculation is rampant Jones will be fired or already is on his way out.

Jones likely needs to win out and win a bowl game to save his job. It starts against Kentucky (5-2, 2-2 SEC) in a 7:30 EDT kickoff (TV: SEC Network).

“I want to make this clear that Tennessee is not OK with being 3-4, and definitely Butch Jones is not OK with being 3-4,” Jones says. “And we have to keep working and work our way through this and work our way out of this.”

UT opened as a rare 5.5-point underdog against Kentucky in a border rivalry dominated in recent years by the Vols.

Tennessee has won 31 of its last 32 games against Kentucky. Its last loss to the Wildcats was 10-7 in the final game of the 2011 season, Derek Dooley’s second as UT’S coach.

Fifth-year Kentucky coach Mark Stoops has his best chance to break a 0-4 streak against the Vols.

Tennessee hasn’t scored an offensive touchdown in 14 quarters, a streak dating back to the second quarter of their 17-13 victory over UMass on Sept. 23. It’s a span of 210 minutes, 25 seconds of actual game time without a TD and covers 43 offensive possessions.

UT’s chances of scoring took a big hit Wednesday when its top offensive player, junior running back John Kelly, was suspended after being cited Tuesday night for possession of a Schedule 6 drug (a misdemeanor). Officers found a bag of what appeared to be marijuana in the console of the car Kelly was driving.

True freshman Will Ignont, a passenger in Kelly’s car, was cited for possession of drug paraphernalia and also suspended.

Kentucky is motivated by gaining bowl eligibility with a victory after losing to Mississippi State 45-7 last Saturday. The Wildcats’ other SEC loss was at home to Florida, 28-27, on Sept. 23. Kentucky has SEC victories at South Carolina (23-13) and at home against Missouri (40-34).

“It’s going to be a great challenge going to Lexington on Saturday night,” Jones acknowledges.

The Vols had better be up to the challenge. Their coach’s job could be at stake.

Matchups to watch

Johnson vs. UT ‘D’

Kentucky senior quarterback Stephen Johnson is in his second season as the starter after spending two years at College of the Desert in Palm Desert, California.

Johnson entered the Mississippi State game fourth in the SEC in total offense (230.3 yards per game), fifth in passing yards per game (206.3), and seventh in pass efficiency rating (147.5).

He’s coming off his worst game of the season – 13-of-28 for 117 yards with two interceptions against Mississippi State.

Johnson, of Rancho Cucamonga, California, enrolled at Kentucky in January of 2016 and entered fall camp No. 2 on the depth chart behind Drew Barker.

When Barker was injured in the third game against New Mexico State, Johnson took over as the starter and led the Wildcats to seven wins. He threw for 2,037 yards and 13 touchdowns and completed 54.7 percent of his passes in 2016 as Kentucky finished 7-6 and in a three-way tie for second in the SEC at 4-4 with Tennessee and Georgia.

Johnson was Kentucky’s MVP in the 33-18 loss to Georgia Tech in the TaxSlayer Bowl when he completed 19-of-34 passes for 175 yards and a touchdown and rushed for a team-high 49 yards and a touchdown.

This year, Johnson retained the starting job with Barker’s return and is completing 61.2 percent of his passes. He’s thrown for 1,355 yards with nine touchdowns and four interceptions and is Kentucky’s third leading rusher with 198 yards (3.7-yard average per carry) and two rushing touchdowns.

Tennessee is second in the SEC in passing yards allowed (158 yards per game), but it’s a skewed statistic because UT’s run defense is so vulnerable.

Last Saturday, Alabama’s Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa combined to go 22-of-33 for 332 yards and two touchdowns with one interception (by backup Tagovailoa) against the Vols.

Wildcats’ RBs vs. UT ‘D’

Kentucky sophomore Benny Snell Jr. will be the next top running back to test Tennessee’s run defense.

Snell leads the Wildcats’ rushing with 541 yards and six touchdowns, averaging 4.1 yards per carry. Junior Sihiem King is second with 203 yards and a 4.8-yard average and no rushing touchdowns.

However, Kentucky rushed for only 115 rushing yards against Mississippi State, and Snell had a season-low 18 yards on seven carries. It was the Wildcats’ third-worst rushing game of the season.

Tennessee is last in the SEC in rushing defense, allowing 338 yards per game. (Vanderbilt is 13th in the SEC (305 yards allowed per game).

Kentucky is 10th in the SEC in rushing offense (135 yards per game).

“They have a very, very good running back corps with Benny Snell,” Jones noted, “but they have running backs from the skill set standpoint that really complement each other.”

Last year, Snell earned All-SEC Freshman honors when he rushed for 1,091 yards, a school record for a freshman, with 13 touchdowns and a 5.9-yard average. His 192 yards against Missouri was a school record for a freshman.

Vols run vs. Cats ‘D’

Kentucky was allowing just 97 rushing yards per game going into the Mississippi State game, but gave up 282 on the ground against the Bulldogs.

It was the Wildcats’ worst run defense in a game this season, but their second consecutive poor showing. Missouri rushed for 213 yards and averaged 6.5 yards per carry against Kentucky.

Kelly is UT’s leading rusher, but the Vols are 11th in the SEC in rushing offense (124.6), one spot ahead of Kentucky.

Even so, losing Kelly will mean a huge drop-off in Tennessee’s run game.

True freshman Ty Chandler of Nashville’s Montgomery Bell Academy is UT’s second-leading rusher (118 yards, 4.4-yard average, no touchdowns), followed by sophomore Carlin Fils-aime (74 yards, 6.7 average, two TDs) and true freshman Tim Jordan (36 yards, 5.1 average, no touchdowns).

Kentucky is third in the SEC in rushing defense (222 yards per game).

“We need to run the football, and John Kelly obviously is one of our best playmakers on our offense and on our football team,” Jones said.

“It all starts with being able to run the football, because when you display the ability to run the football, it opens everything up.”


Injury update

Jones announced Monday that junior offensive lineman Jack Jones’ career is over due to reoccurring neck and shoulder injuries.

Jones, a four-star recruit from Murfreesboro Oakland High, started the first three games of the season at left guard and was replaced for the UMass game by Venzell Boulware. After not being in the lineup the next week against Georgia, Boulware announced he was leaving team. UT also lost projected starting lineman Chance Hall to injury in preseason.

Backup quarterback Quinten Dormady is having his shoulder evaluated this week, according to Jones. The coach said Dormady could have played (he didn’t) in Saturday’s loss to Alabama after having issues with his shoulder during the week of practice.

Juice’s streak

Kentucky senior receiver Garrett ‘Juice’ Johnson has caught a pass in 17 consecutive games and ranks among the top four in the program’s career receiving yards list (1,919).

Johnson had five catches for 36 yards in the loss to Mississippi State and leads the Wildcats in catches (32) and receiving yards (369) – averaging 11.5 yards per catch – and is tied for second in TD catches with two.

Junior tight end C.J. Conrad leads Kentucky in TD catches (three) and has nine catches for 195 yards.

Kentucky’s Blitz Brothers

Kentucky’s defensive end/linebacker duo of Josh Allen and Denzil Ware, dubbed the “Blitz Brothers,” are one of the nation’s top pass rushing threats.

In the past two seasons, they’ve combined for 184.5 tackles, 30 tackles for loss, 19.5 sacks, 11 quarterback hurries, and six forced fumbles.

Allen was named a mid-season second-team All-American by the AP and “Sports Illustrated.’’ He’s the team’s fourth-leading tackler (40) and has the team-high 8.5 tackles for loss and team-high 6.5 sacks.

Wildcats’ last win

Kentucky beat Tennessee 10-7 on Nov. 26, 2011, in the last game of the season with senior wide receiver Matt Roark playing quarterback. UT finished 5-7 and 1-7 in the SEC (last place). It was the first time UT ever lost seven SEC games.

The Wildcats entered the game with both of their starting quarterbacks, Morgan Newton and Maxwell Smith, questionable due to injuries.

Roark hadn’t played quarterback since his days at North Cobb High in Acworth, Georgia, before taking over behind center for the Tennessee game. He completed 4 of 6 passes for 15 yards, but ran 24 times for 124 yards.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.