(Story has been updated)
Tennessee got the breaks Saturday night, but when it counted the most the defense broke down.
Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson scored on an 11-yard run, threw for a two-point conversion with 33 seconds remaining and led the Wildcats to a 29-26 victory over Tennessee at Kroger Field.
“We didn’t capitalize on our turnovers,” Vols coach Butch Jones said. “We weren’t able to capitalize on good field position. We couldn’t stop the quarterback on the zone read. We had nine penalties and that’s inexcusable and that’s on me. It all falls on my shoulders.”
By Sunday afternoon, there were reports coming out of Knoxville that UT's athletic director, John Currie, and other school officials were "discussing Butch Jones' immediate future."
Another report had Jones and Curry met to talk about the situation and, barring any surprises, Jones is expected to coach the Vols this week, but there are doubts about him coaching beyond this weekend.
There was, however, no indication an announcement on Jones' status was forthcoming.
On the same day, it was being reported in Florida that the University of Florida had fired Jim McElwain as its football coach. The Gators were lethargic in a 42-7 loss to bitter rival Georgia in Jacksonville, Florida
It was Florida's third straight loss and came on the heels of McElwain's claim that coaches and players had received death threats.
Randy Shannon is expected to be named Florida's interim coach.
The Wildcats (6-2, 3-2) drove 72 yards in 10 plays for the game-winning score.
Tennessee (3-5, 0-5) had pushed its lead to 26-21 on Brent Cimaglia’s field goal with 13:24 left.
The Vols got one last chance to pull out a win. They drove to their own 49-yard line with two seconds on the clock. Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano dropped back and threw the ball as far as he could.
Jeff George, a 6-foot-6 wide receiver, leaped over several players from both teams to catch the ball, but was tackled at the Kentucky 3.
Joshua Dobbs hooked up with Jauan Jennings on a similar 43-yard Hail Mary play to beat Georgia in 2016 on the game’s final play.
“There (were) opportunities where we needed to score,” Guarantano said after the disappointing loss. “I went a little high with it, and we throw that every single day and I make that throw every single day. I missed it today and it hurts.”
Guarantano was making his third college start and relayed thoughts on his confidence to lead the team. In fact, he talked to the team Friday night.
“Listen, I’m 0-2,” he said. “As a quarterback, my job is to win games. I’ve failed you guys (teammates). I thought today was going to be the day, and it wasn’t the day. I’m (now) going in 0-3 and we have another week. We have Southern Miss and then we have another three games. I’ve got to end on the right note and continue to play well.”
“It’s hard to be upbeat at the University of Tennessee when you’re 3-5.”
The ground under Jones continues to rumble and roar and his job status is in a dark place. Social media exploded – again – after the Kentucky loss and athletic director John Currie appears torn about what to do with the football coach.
Jones is the Vols’ third coach in nine years after the stability of Phillip Fulmer’s largely successful 16-year run that included a national championship in 1998.
Jones was asked if he was coaching for his job.
“Nah, I coach for my job every single day,” he said. “That hasn’t changed since the minute I walked in here year one. That’s always the mindset that I’ve had.”
Jones was also asked if he has the support of Currie for the remainder of the season.
“Absolutely,” Jones said.
The Vols’ defense forced four fumbles and kept the Wildcats in check for the first 29-plus minutes of the second half before Johnson’s touchdown that capped his fifth comeback victory either in the fourth quarter or overtime this season.
“To come away with only six points is inexcusable,” Jones said.
Saturday’s win cracked Tennessee’s complete dominance in the series and shoved the Vols further into the world of uncertainly when it comes to their coach. The Vols have lost five of their last six games and fell to 0-5 in the SEC.
Dooley was 0-5 in 2012, his final season, and eventually lost the first seven league games before beating Kentucky.
The win was only the second in 33 years and snapped the Vols’ five-game winning streak in a 113-year border rivalry.
“Was that a team that quit? No. That team battled,” Jones said when asked about the health of the team. “This team hasn’t given up. I believe in our kids. I believe in our program. I believe it’s one of those years and they only way I know is to keep working and driving. I will tell you this, there’s nobody who takes more ownership in this football program than Butch Jones.
“I want to win for our fans, I want to win for our players. I want to win for everyone, but you just keep battling and move forward.”
Benny Snell rushed for 180 yards on 27 carries and scored three touchdowns on runs of 6, 2 and 1 yard. It was Johnson’s keeper and dive into the end zone that gave the Wildcats the go-ahead points.
Kentucky finished with 371 yards of total offense, 289 on the ground.
Tennessee snapped an embarrassing string of 15 straight quarters without an offensive touchdown. Freshman tailback Ty Chandler, playing for the suspended John Kelly, scored TDs on twin runs of 1 yard.
Chandler rushed 22 times for 120 yards, with a long of 29 yards. He is the first Tennessee freshman to rush for 100 yards since Jalen Hurd.
“It was important for (Chandler) to step up,” Jones said. “We’ve said we need to get him more involved.”
George had two catches for 59 yards.
Guarantano was 18 for 23 for 242 yards and was sacked seven times for minus-60 yards.
Brent Cimaglia added field goals of 30, 24, 30 and 45 yards. He missed twice from 44 and 43 yards.
Kendal Vickers forced two fumbles for the Vols while Nigel Warrior and Rashaan Gaulden each had one. Shy Tuttle, Gaulden, Warrior and Elliott Berry each had a recovery.
Vickers, a senior defensive tackle, expressed his dismay at the Vols’ winless SEC mark.
“Very frustrated,” he said. “The guys in the locker room are frustrated, but they’re going to keep working and keep going. All we know is work. That’s all you can do at this point: keep working, keep going every week and keep grinding. That’s all you can do.”
The Vols got on the scoreboard first with Cimaglia’s 30-yard field goal, but Snell unleashed a strong rushing performance and scored on a 6-yard run.
Cimaglia added a 24-yard field goal.
Snell came back with a 2-yard TD run, giving the Wildcats a 14-6 lead in the second quarter.
Tennessee then got a 2-yard touchdown run by Chandler that broke a 15-quarter streak without an offensive touchdown dating to the UMass game on Sept. 23. Chandler’s short burst capped a seven-play, 75-yard drive.
But Snell slipped into the end zone for a 1-yard TD to give Kentucky a 21-13 advantage.
Chandler ended a 10-play, 71-yard march with a 1-yard touchdown and pulled the Vols to within 21-20 with 1:20 left in the second quarter.
Elliott Berry hit reserve quarterback Drew Barker, who came on for injured Stephen Johnson, and recovered a Wildcat fumble of the game at the UT 45. Gaulden caused the fumble.
The drive fizzled, but Cimaglia salvaged the scoring opportunity with a 30-yard field goal and Tennessee went ahead 23-21 late in the third period.
Gaulden, who was coming off disciplinary actions after a two-hand obscene gesture at Alabama, pounced on the fourth Kentucky fumble early in the fourth quarter
Kentucky’s defense pressured Guarantano in the pocket, the quarterback threw the ball away only to be called for intentional grounding with a loss of down. Facing a third-and-19, Guarantano missed Brandon Johnson.
Cimaglia came on to attempt a 45-yard field goal. The ball sailed right down Main Street and the Vols extended their lead to 26-21 with 13:24 left in the game. It was Cimaglia’s fourth true boot of the contest played on a cold night in the Commonwealth.
Later, Cimaglia missed wide left.
The Vols’ defense forced a three-and-out with 7:53 remaining.
Gaulden and Daniel Bituli were ejected from the game with two unsportsmanlike penalties. Kentucky also lost two players on the same penalties.
The Vols next host Southern Miss on homecoming Nov. 4 in an attempt to shake the funk they’ve been in since being destroyed 41-0 by Georgia on Sept. 30. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. at Neyland Stadium.
Southern Miss (5-3) lost to Alabama-Birmingham, 30-12, Saturday.
Notes: Jones announced Saturday afternoon that junior quarterback Quinten Dormady, who did not accompany the Vols to Lexington, would have season-ending shoulder surgery next week.
Also, sophomore Darrell Taylor had his suspension lifted and was available for the Kentucky game. “Darrell has completed the requirements we had set for him to return to play and he will be available tonight against Kentucky. He must continue to meet criteria we have set forth for him on a daily and weekly basis.”
Taylor was credited with one quarterback hurry.
Tennessee 6 14 3 3 – 26
Kentucky 7 14 0 8 – 29
UT – FG Brent Cimaglia 30, 13:26
UK – Benny Snell 6 run (Austin MacGinnis), 10:16
UT – FG Cimaglia 24, 4:34
UK – Snell 2 run (MacGinnis kick), 14:57
UT – Ty Chandler 1 run (Cimaglia kick), 8:37
UK – Snell 1 run (MacGinnis kick), 5:58
UT – Chandler 1 run (Cimaglia kick), 1:25
UT – FG Cimaglia 30, 3:40
UT – FG Cimaglia 44, 13:24
UK – Stephen Johnson 11 run (Johnson pass to Snell), 0:33
First Downs 27 17
Rushes-Yds 55-203 36-289
Passing Yards 242 82-
Comp-Att-Int 18-23-0 7-16-0
Tot Plys-Yds 78-445 52-371
Fumbles-Lost 0-0 4-4
Punts-Avg 3-37.0 4-41.5
Penalties-Yds 9-54 4-44
RUSHING – Tennessee: Ty Chandler 22-120, Carlin Fils-Aime 13-73, Tim Jordan 3-11, Tyler Byrd 1-4, Team 1-0, Jarrett Guarantano 15-minus 5; Kentucky: Benny Snell 27-180, Stephen Johnson 6-84, Sihiem King 2-17, Drew Barker 1-8.
PASSING – Tennessee: Guarantano 18-23-0-242; Kentucky: Johnson 6-15-0-46, Lynn Bowden 1-1-0-36.
RECEIVING – Tennessee: Jeff George 2-59, Brandon Johnson 3-40, Ethan Wolf 3-33, Chandler 2-33, Josh Palmer 2-31, Marquez Callaway 2-16, Josh Smith 1-13, Fils-Aime 1-12, Jordan 2-5; Kentucky: Tavin Richardson 3-52, Blake Bone 2-26, Garrett Johnson 1-2, King 1-2.
(Contact Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @larryfleming44)