KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Two years ago, Kentucky was playing well before being shut down at Neyland Stadium by a Tennessee team with a losing record.
Wildcats coach Mark Stoops was convinced something had to change.
What he did in 2020 was build a detour into his team’s three-hour bus ride Friday from Lexington to Knoxville. A small change, but worth a try to snap a 17-game losing streak at Tennessee.
Mission accomplished: The Wildcats beat the 18th-ranked Volunteers 34-7 on Saturday.
“Two years ago, we didn’t come out and play well at the start of the game,” Stoops said. “Stopping at the University of the Cumberlands broke up our (travel) day. ”
The University of the Cumberlands is a small, private college about an hour north of Knoxville in Williamsburg, Kentucky, and a couple blocks off Interstate 75.
“(Stopping Friday) helped us get our legs under ourselves,” said Wildcats linebacker Jamin Davis, who had an 85-yard interception return for a touchdown. “It was definitely worth it.”
Kelvin Joseph also returned an interceptions for a touchdown in the first half and Kentucky shut out Tennessee in the second half.
It was Kentucky’s first win in Neyland Stadium since 1984, the Wildcats’ largest margin of victory in Knoxville since 56-0 in 1893 and their most lopsided victory in the series since 1935.
“I don’t like our team inheriting 20, 30 years of history that’s not on these guys. We’re responsible for what we’ve done lately,” Stoops said. “Two years ago, I didn’t like how I had them ready to play and we altered that, got some things fixed and played much better. That’s on me as much as it is on the team.”
After getting six interceptions and allowing only a safety against Mississippi State last week, Kentucky (2-2) picked off three passes against the Vols (2-2).
“This game was definitely personal for us,” Davis said. “We came out and put our foot on their necks. We’re tired of leaving here empty-handed.”
Tennessee has now followed up an eight-game winning streak with a two-game losing streak.
“There’s lots of areas we need to improve obviously but it’s more about creating the right habits,” Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said. “It’s how you practice every single day. It’s the work ethic. It’s creating the right habits. It’s on everybody within our organization to really improve that. We’ve got to work hard to do that.”
Joseph’s 41-yard touchdown and Davis’ 85-yard return — both off interceptions thrown by Jarrett Guarantano — helped put Kentucky up 17-0 in the second quarter.
With about 5 minutes left in the third quarter and trailing by 20, Tennessee went three-and-out for a second consecutive possession and was showered with boos from the sparse crowd of 22,519.
All-America offensive guard Trey Smith, the face of the Vols, defended his quarterback.
“Going forward, I don’t want to see any Guarantano slander,” he said. “I just don’t want to see it.
“We’ve just got to get better. At the end of the day, we’ve got to get better and we’ve got to execute better.”
Pruitt also used J.T. Shrout and freshman Harrison Bailey under center. Neither was effective.
Eric Gray, who rushed for 105 yards on 24 carries, was the only bright spot for Tennessee.
Earlier in the season, Kentucky had shown signs of having difficulty recovering from adversity. Against Ole Miss, a missed field goal was followed by 21 straight Ole Miss points and a 42-41 loss.
Kentucky seemed to solve that Saturday.
After falling behind 17-0 in the second quarter, Tennessee was able to grind out a 75-yard drive to cut the deficit to 10 at the half.
The Vols had the first possession of the third quarter, but went three-and-out. The Wildcats’ offense responded with a 76-yard march that ended in a 1-yard TD pass from Terry Wilson to Allen Dailey, Jr.
Chris Rodriguez had a 2-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter to stretch the Kentucky lead to 34-7.
Four Tennessee turnovers — three interceptions and a fumble — dictated the first half.
Wilson, who had also been getting some criticism, is now just the second Wildcats QB along with Derrick Ramsey to win in at Tennessee and Florida.
“That’s great company to be in,” said Wilson, who completed 12 of 15 passes for 101 yards and a TD. “That was one of the main things I wanted to do. I know a win like this means a lot to the state and the University of Kentucky.”
Kentucky: The Wildcats’ 17 straight losses at Neyland was the longest such streak in major college football. Temple’s 15 straight losses at Penn State was No. 2.
Tennessee: Guarantano was benched after two picks and Shrout was intercepted on his first attempt by Tyrell Ajian. That pick was turned into a field goal and a 17-0 lead.
Guarantano’s performance off the bench in last year’s 17-13 win at Kentucky fueled his resurgence. That carried him through the final three games of last season and the start of this season.
But it’s apparent that Tennessee again has a questions at quarterback.
Kentucky will face Missouri at home Saturday night after the SEC shuffled its schedule to make up a couple of postponed games.
Tennessee will entertain No. 2 Alabama Saturday.