Vols get the best of UK — again

Published 5:13 pm Tuesday, October 31, 2023

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Sophomore running back Dylan Sampson accounted for 114 all-purpose yards, including 90 in the fourth quarter, as No. 21 Tennessee secured bowl eligibility for the third straight season under head coach Josh Heupel with a gritty 33-27 road win at Kentucky on Saturday night at Kroger Field.

The Volunteers (6-2, 3-2 SEC) ended their road drought and beat the Wildcats for the 36th time in the last 39 meetings with Heupel staying perfect against Kentucky. Tennessee pounded out 254 yards on the ground against a Wildcat defense that came into the game boasting the conference’s second-best rush unit, allowing only 95.7 yards per game.

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“I felt like we won the fourth quarter tonight,” said Heupel, who improved to 7-1 following a loss at UT. “That was a good job finishing the football game – all three phases – and a really nice drive at the end of it by the offense to go during the clock. I was so proud of our football team for answering back. And so, I told them we’ve got to continue to get better, too. There’s a lot left on the back third of the season. And there are a lot of things we can control that we got to be better at.”

Tennessee’s defense shut down Kentucky’s dynamic rushing attack, holding the Wildcats to 72 yards, while Ray Davis managed only 42 yards and 2.6 yards per carry on the night.

Kentucky dropped its third straight game and fell to 5-3 and 2-3 in league play.

Senior quarterback Joe Milton III played one of the most complete games of his career, firing 18-of-21 passes for 228 yards and one touchdown with no interceptions. His 85.7 completion percentage was a career best, and he added 26 yards on the ground.

Junior running back Jaylen Wright hit the century mark for the fifth time in eight games, logging 120 yards on 11 carries, averaging 10.9 yards per carry. His 52-yard burst put the Vols on the board with 10:47 left in the first quarter, culminating a five-play, 70-yard drive.

Senior placekicker Charles Campbell extended the UT lead to 10-0 with a 44-yard field goal with 5:34 left in the first. Campbell finished the evening a perfect 4-of-4 on field goals.

Kentucky responded with a field goal and touchdown of its own, but Milton made a beautiful 39-yard throw to sophomore wide receiver Chas Nimrod, who hauled in his first career score with 6:16 left in the second quarter.

The Wildcats’ quarterback Devin Leary responded, marching UK down the field on 10 plays before Davis finished it off with a 7-yard touchdown run. Campbell tacked on another field goal to make it 23-17 Vols at the break.

With Tennessee holding a slight 26-24 advantage in the fourth quarter, Milton took the Vols down the field on 13 plays for 80 yards with multiple key third-down conversions. Facing a third-and-10 at the UK 29, Milton executed a shovel pass to Sampson, who danced his way free for 17 yards for a first down. One play later, Sampson hit paydirt, bursting through for a 12-yard touchdown that lifted the Vols 33-24 lead with 7:30 to play.

Leary, who finished 28-of-39 passing for 372 yards, wouldn’t go quietly as the Wildcats quickly made it a one-possession game on Alex Raynor’s 28-yard field goal with 4:24 to play.

However, Sampson took it into another gear on the ensuing drive, converting two first downs and logging 38 yards on the Vols’ final possession to ice the game.

Senior safety Wesley Walker was UT’s leading tackler with nine – his most ever in a Vol uniform. Sophomore linebacker Elijah Herring added eight tackles, while junior defensive tackle Omarr Norman-Lott added one sack.

Sophomore Squirrel White led all Vol receivers with five catches for 47 yards, and junior Dont’e Thornton Jr. played his best game as a Vol with three catches for 63 yards.

Tennessee steps out of conference play and will host UConn for Homecoming on Saturday at noon on SEC Network. The Vols have won 13 in a row at home.