No. 21 Tennessee visits Kentucky in border showdown, with both looking to prove they can hold leads

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Tennessee wide receiver Squirrel White (10) grabs a touchdown pass as Alabama linebacker Chris Braswell (41) defends during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)

LEXINGTON, Ky. – No. 21 Tennessee and Kentucky really need a lift right now.

Both teams have fallen further behind first-place and top-ranked Georgia in the SEC Eastern Division and look to overcome losses after blowing double-digit leads. The Volunteers (5-2, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) have felt the pain more recently, allowing a 20-7 halftime lead at No. 9 Alabama to disintegrate into a 34-20 loss that has dropped them two games behind.

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Their goal on Saturday night is avoiding consecutive losses for the first time this season and maintaining an edge over the Wildcats, who are hungry to win after consecutive losses to the Bulldogs and Missouri by 55 combined points. Tennessee seeks a third consecutive series win over well-rested Kentucky (5-2, 2-2), which of course requires getting a lead and keeping it after letting one slip away last week.

“We’ve all got to be a little bit better in the second half,” Volunteers coach John Heupel said this week. "We’ve got to do that quickly as we move on. ... We’re playing a really good Kentucky team that’s had two weeks of preparation coming off of a bye. Extremely physical football team on both sides of the line of scrimmage.

“It’ll be a huge test, and special teams will be a big part of it, too.”

Kentucky needed the extra time to get over the sting of blowing a 14-0 lead against Missouri and losing 38-21 at home on Oct. 14. Just as the Wildcats seemed to have moved on from losing by 38 at Georgia, they lost momentum just as quickly and were swamped in every phase in the final three quarters.

After moving past that disappointment last week, this week's mission is addressing the issues that have factored into both losses: undisciplined play, dropped passes and lost focus.

“We got to execute better. We got to play better," coach Mark Stoops said. “The game comes down to critical situations a lot of times, and there’s things that we can improve on and play better, and we’ve focused on some of those things in the bye week and our execution when the game is on the line and the pressure is on. We have to execute better.”

REDUCING PENALTIES

Just nine yards separate the SEC’s two most penalized teams. Kentucky has yielded 479 yards on 54 flags (68.4 per game), Tennessee 470 on 56 (67.1). The Wildcats in particular need a reset after committing a season-high 14 for 122 yards against Missouri.

“Certainly, we have to be a smarter football team. We have to execute in critical moments and get rid of silly penalties and unforced errors and things of that nature,” Stoops said.

BOUNCING BACK

Heupel has been good at avoiding skids. He has lost consecutive games only twice in six seasons between UCF and Tennessee. He is 11-2 in games coming off a loss, including 6-1 with the Vols with five straight wins. They have been even better rebounding from losses to Alabama, having scored at least 40 points the next game his first two seasons.

STILL STINGY

Tennessee allowed 27 unanswered points in losing to Alabama last week. That dropped the Vols’ defense to third stingiest in the SEC and 28th overall in the FBS, giving up 19.4 points a game. Under coordinator Tim Banks, Tennessee also ranks third in the league and 17th in the FBS, giving up just 310.9 yards a game. The Vols also have forced eight turnovers over the past four games.

WHO WILL POUND IT BETTER?

This will be a test of strength on strength with Tennessee leading SEC rushing with a per-game average of 217.3 yards per game, which is seventh in the FBS. The Vols' challenge is cracking a Kentucky run defense ranked second in the SEC, allowing 95.71 yards a game. The Wildcats feature one of the league's top rushers in Ray Davis, whose 7.04-yard average per carry tops the SEC. His 781 yards rushing are second to Missouri's Cory Schrader (807).

BIG-PLAY CORNER

Kentucky cornerback Maxwell Hairston has 44 tackles, which ties teammate D'Eryk Jackson for the lead and ninth in the SEC. Hairston still leads the SEC with five interceptions, including two returned for touchdowns.

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AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker in Tennessee contributed to this report.

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