Paschall: Life good on ground for Vols; hoop team impressive, too

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee junior running back Jaylen Wright has averaged 9.7 yards per carry during his three meetings against Kentucky.
Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee junior running back Jaylen Wright has averaged 9.7 yards per carry during his three meetings against Kentucky.

The winningest coach in Kentucky football history fell to 2-9 against Tennessee on Saturday night.

Mark Stoops has a respectable list of accomplishments during his 11 years in Lexington, which includes a pair of 10-win seasons and a streak of seven consecutive bowl invites that he has tried for nearly a month now to stretch to eight. Saturday was the third clash between Stoops and his Wildcats and Josh Heupel's Volunteers, and it was the third occasion in which Tennessee's rushing attack was simply too much.

"It was frustrating," Stoops said in a news conference following a 33-27 loss in a thriller that contained 926 total yards. "The tempo at which they go gets some of the eyes of our guys a little dirty, and credit them. They have a very good scheme, and the tempo adds to the vision of your players with their fits.

"If you're not very precise, they're going to make you pay, and we didn't have a good handle on it all night."

The Vols rushed 47 times for 253 yards at Kentucky to increase their Southeastern Conference-leading average to 221.8 yards per game. They averaged 5.4 yards a carry Saturday and have averaged more than 5.0 yards per rush against the Wildcats in their past three meetings.

Kentucky would surely love to see Jaylen Wright move on sooner than later, because Tennessee's junior tailback has rushed 25 times for 243 yards in the three series encounters, averaging 9.7 yards per carry. Wright has rushed for 713 yards and 7.0 per carry this season, while senior Jabari Small has rushed for 415 (averaging 5.1) and sophomore Dylan Sampson 376 (averaging 5.7).

Stoops was disappointed but couldn't have been shocked by Saturday's outcome, admitting last week, "I think their running backs don't get talked about enough."

"I just know we come to play each and every single week," Sampson said after rushing 12 times for 56 yards and a touchdown in the fourth quarter alone. "At the end of the game, you're going to see the work that we put in. We know the mindset that we have.

"Regardless of what other people think about us, it's a deep room, and we're going to show that every week we play."

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As someone who has covered a quarter-century's worth of Georgia-Florida showdowns, I think it's among the most colorful and unique matchups college football has to offer.

I also think the games are mostly dreadful.

Georgia's 43-20 lambasting Saturday — it was 36-7 early in the fourth quarter — marked the ninth series meeting in the last decade decided by at least two touchdowns. The Bulldogs have prevailed the past three years by 72 combined points.

Still, the winner of the Georgia-Florida game the past eight seasons has gone on to represent the SEC East in Atlanta, and the history of this series goes much deeper than that.

"You can't win the East without going through Jacksonville most of the time," Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart said after downing the Gators for the sixth time in eight years. "This year, it may not play out that way, but it has in years past, and we've showed them the stat.

"When you're building a program, you've got to beat the best teams in your division, and Florida has been that historically."

I'll miss the SEC divisional conversations next year when there aren't any.

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Auburn entered Saturday's pairing with Mississippi State having won just two of 16 SEC games since Halloween 2021, so the 27-13 downing of the Bulldogs was much appreciated on the Plains.

Payton Thorne threw for 230 yards and three touchdowns and Jarquez Hunter added 144 rushing yards for the Tigers, who impressively built a 24-3 halftime lead before some second-half struggles.

"I think we saw some signs today of us getting better at some things, and I think that's exciting to see," Auburn first-year coach Hugh Freeze said. "This was a big one for us. You never want to say it, because you don't want to make too much of one game, but it had the feeling for me as a critical game."

The Tigers improved to 4-4 overall and will try to get back above .500 this Saturday when they visit Vanderbilt, which brings us to the historical fact that the Auburn-Vanderbilt series is deadlocked at 21-21-1. The Commodores dominated the Tigers during the 1920s and 1940s, building a 19-7-1 series advantage, but the two teams didn't play from the 1955 Gator Bowl to the 1978 regular season.

Auburn has won 14 of the 16 meetings since 1978.

***

South Carolina's season seemingly should be over at 2-6, but Shane Beamer's Gamecocks have a schedule this year that surprisingly eases in November with games against Jacksonville State and Vanderbilt and the currently struggling duo of Kentucky and Clemson. All four of those contests will be inside Williams-Brice Stadium.

"We've got to go back home to Columbia now," Beamer said after Saturday's 30-17 loss at Texas A&M. "We've got four in a row at home, and we showed today the kind of team we can be. We're getting healthier now.

"Let's see if we can finish this thing the right way."

  photo  Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessees Josiah-Jordan James looks with excitement at teammate Dalton Knecht after Knechts second-half dunk during Sundays 89-88 exhibition win at Michigan State.
 
 

While college football coaches are seeking the ingredients to a strong finish, college basketball coaches are just getting going.

Tennessee traveled up to Michigan State and defeated the Spartans 89-88 Sunday afternoon in the Maui Strong Relief Matchup exhibition before a packed house of 14,797 inside the Breslin Events Center. The Vols jumped out to a 17-1 lead and never trailed, but the Spartans pulled into an 88-88 deadlock with five seconds remaining on an A.J. Hoggard 3-pointer.

Junior guard Jordan Gainey, the son of Vols assistant Justin Gainey who transferred from USC Upstate, was fouled with 1.9 seconds left and made the second of two free throws for the deciding point. Gainey finished with 20 points and six assists.

Dalton Knecht, a 6-foot-6 guard, led Tennessee with 28 points. Knecht (pronounced like "connect") is a fifth-year senior who transferred from Northern Colorado.

"We all know that we're a good team and that they're a good team," Knecht said. "This was pretty much like a real game to us. We took it real. We were all locked in and ready to play."

Said Gainey: "That felt like more of a Final Four game or any March postseason game. It was amazing."

The Vols played without fifth-year senior guard Santiago Vescovi, who was home in Uruguay on a personal matter, and without junior point guard Zakai Zeigler, who is in the finishing stages of his recovery from an ACL tear.

Tennessee has another exhibition Tuesday against visiting Lenoir-Rhyne and will open its season next Monday at home against Tennessee Tech.

Contact David Paschall at [email protected].

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