LEXINGTON, Ky. — Tennessee’s deep and talented running back trio of Jaylen Wright, Jabari Small and Dylan Sampson helped the No. 21 Volunteers overcome a rough night defensively during a 33-27 outlasting of Kentucky on Saturday at Kroger Field.
Wright led the Vols with 11 carries for 120 yards and a touchdown, but it was Sampson who added 17 rushes for 76 yards and scored from 12 yards out with 7:30 remaining for a 33-24 lead. Sampson then added a 24-yard gain as Tennessee was able to run out the clock and get back into the victory column after last weekend’s 34-20 loss at Alabama.
“We had to finish, and I feel like this is a big step in getting where we need to go,” Sampson said. “We’ve got a lot of things we need to accomplish, but this was a big win for us as a team.”
The Vols improved to 6-2 overall and to 3-2 in Southeastern Conference play, attaining bowl eligibility for a third time in as many seasons under coach Josh Heupel, while Kentucky fell to 5-3 and 2-3 with its third consecutive setback.
Tennessee continued its series mastery of the Wildcats, winning for the 36th time in the last 39 meetings, and the Vols improved to 8-0 under Heupel in games immediately following rivalry contests against Alabama, Florida and Georgia. Saturday’s triumph was also Tennessee’s first in a true road game this season, having suffered double-digit defeats at Florida and at Alabama.
“I’m proud of the fight and the competitive nature of this football team,” Heupel said. “They played for four quarters. They didn’t play perfect, and there are a lot of things we can do better in every phase, but they played hard.
“We were physical, and we talked about having to win the fourth quarter. I felt like we won the fourth quarter tonight.”
Wright, Sampson and Small combined on 37 carries for 228 yards and two touchdowns, with Wright surpassing 100 rushing yards for the fifth time this season. Quarterback Joe Milton III complemented the ground assault by completing 17 of 20 passes for 227 yards and a score.
The Vols wound up amassing 482 yards while allowing 444, including a whopping 373 through the air by Wildcats quarterback Devin Leary.
“D-Samp was dynamic, and in the second half in particular,” Heupel said. “He did an unbelievable job in making people miss and reading the blocks and running extremely hard. J-Wright did that early, too, before getting nicked up a little bit. Jabari ran well, too, early on.
“All in all, it was just a big-time effort from those guys, and D-Samp played really special.”
The Wildcats put Tennessee’s pound-and-ground offense on the spot one last time by pulling within 33-27 on Alex Raynor’s 28-yard field goal with 4:24 to play.
Tennessee forced a three-and-out to open the ESPN-televised game and then went 70 yards in five plays, grabbing a 7-0 lead on Wright’s 53-yard run. The touchdown was the sixth for the Vols this season on their opening possession.
The Wildcats punted on fourth-and-1 during their first possession and had a fourth-and-1 stuffed for no gain on their second, with Ray Davis being brought down by Tyler Baron and Elijah Herring at the Kentucky 34. The Vols couldn’t capitalize with another touchdown but did use Charles Campbell’s 44-yard field goal to extend their advantage to 10-0 at the 5:34 mark of the opening quarter.
Kentucky finally got the chains moving on its third drive, reeling off 10-play, 65-yard journey that chewed up 5:43, but the Wildcats had to settle on Raynor’s 28-yard field goal that made it 10-3 early in the second quarter. Tennessee answered with a 10-play, 44-yard drive that ended with Campbell connecting from 49 yards to restore the 10-point difference at 13-3.
An 11-yard pass from Leary to Barion Brown at the 7:38 mark of the second quarter accounted for Kentucky’s first touchdown, but the Vols provided another answer, covering 75 yards in five plays and taking a 20-10 lead on a 39-yard strike from Joe Milton to Chas Nimrod.
The touchdown was the first of Nimrod’s career.
“It’s awesome for a guy who is young and continues to improve,” Heupel said. “He works hard every single day, and we obviously believe he has an opportunity to be a dynamic playmaker.”
Davis scored on a 7-yard run with 1:46 before halftime, pulling Kentucky within 20-17, but Milton connected with Ramel Keyton for 17 yards and Squirrel White for 25 in the final minute to set up Campbell’s 34-yard field goal that gave the Vols a 23-17 lead at the break.
Neither team scored on its opening possession of the second half before Tennessee used a 47-yard pass from Milton to Dont’e Thornton to Kentucky’s 28 to set up Campbell’s 35-yard field goal that hit off the right upright before going through to make it 26-17.
The Wildcats responded with a six-play, 75-yard march and got within 26-24 on a 7-yard pass from Leary to Dane Key at the 2:39 mark of the third quarter. With 10:57 remaining in the game, Raynor missed a 53-yard attempt.
Tennessee will return to Neyland Stadium next Saturday to host Connecticut in a noon kickoff that will be televised by the SEC Network.
“Tonight wasn’t perfect,” Heupel said. “There was short yardage we didn’t pick up, and our pass defense at times could have been better. We had some penalties, but at the end of the day, this group does continue to fight and compete. They play for one another and truly play for the other side of the football.
“There is a belief and a confidence, and that’s built through your work ethic and building a brotherhood, and I’m proud of that.”
Contact David Paschall at [email protected].