There are three things you can count on when college football hits the second half of the regular season: Cooler weather, leaves changing colors and Tennessee beating Kentucky.
Thanks to a solid performance by quarterback Joe Milton, an impressive run game and a brilliant fourth quarter by running back Dylan Sampson, the Vols survived Saturday night in the Commonwealth, 33-27.
It marked the 36th win in the last 39 meetings between these two border rivals.
“I love the effort and the energy we played with,’’ said coach Josh Heupel, whose Vols got their first true road win of the season and pushed their record to 6-2, 3-2 in the SEC.
No one brought more effort or energy in the fourth quarter than Sampson, the 190-pound sophomore who runs with vision, balance and surprising power.
With Tennessee clinging to a two-point lead entering the fourth quarter, Sampson took over. He caught a 12-yard shovel pass from Milton, ran for a first down, converted a third-and-10 with a 17-yard reception, then burst 12 yards into the end for a nine-point lead that proved to be the difference.
When Kentucky kicked a field goal to close within six points with 4:24 left, the Vols turned to Sampson – not Jaylen Wright – to close the deal.
Sampson had gains of 5 and 6 yards, then ripped off a 24-yard run to the Kentucky 40. Milton sealed the deal by converting a third-and-7 with an 11-yard option keeper as UT ran out the clock with its four-minute offense.
“D-Sam, on the back end of the football game, was special,’’ Heupel said.
Sampson finished with 76 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries. Wright added 120 yards on 11 runs and Jabari Small had 32 yards as the Vols racked up 254 rushing yards against the SEC’s second-best run defense (95.7 yards per game).
It’s the second game this season in which Tennessee torched one of the SEC’s top run defenses, ramming it down Texas A&M’s throat for 232 yards.
“On the long drive,’’ Sampson said, “we needed to score and put a dagger in the game.’’
Sampson added that he was running on ‘’instincts’’ during the decisive last period.
Huepel praised his running backs, but he also gave a tip of the cap to the offensive line.
“The five guys up front played really hard and really well,’’ said Heupel, who sounded relieved to get a win in Lexington.
“It’s hard to win on the road in this league,’’ said Heupel.
Sampson and Wright weren’t the only Vols that played at a high level. Milton was 17 of 20 passing for 227 yards and a touchdown. He completed some key passes while rolling out. And while he gained just 26 yards on 10 carries, he picked up some key first downs with his legs.
“He made great plays with his feet throughout the course of game,’’ Heupel said of Milton.
An unsung hero was wideout Dont’e Thornton, who had three catches a team-high 63 yards. The Oregon transfer had just seven catches entering the game and had been a major disappointment through seven games.
Tennessee’s run defense held Ray Davis, the SEC’s leading rusher, in check. Davis had 16 carries for 42 yards. He was averaging 136 yards in SEC games only.
The Vols withstood a brilliant performance by Kentucky quarterback Devin Leary, who statistically was one of the SEC’s worst quarterbacks through seven games. He hadn’t completed more than 52% of his passes in four SEC games and he had thrown seven interceptions – tied for most in the league.
But he was on fire against a UT secondary that was minus its best cover corner – Kamal Hadden (season-ending shoulder surgery).
Leary was precise and decisive, completing 28 of 39 passes for 372 yards – second most in his career — and two scores. He looked more like the 2021 North Carolina State QB who completed 65.7% of his passes for 35 touchdowns and just five picks.
Injuries have impacted his play. Numerous drops by Kentucky receivers also stalled UK’s passing game – until Saturday night.
But when it mattered most, Milton, Sampson and the UT defense made just enough plays to escape with a win.
“It’s good to know we could finish a dog fight,’’ said defensive tackle Omari Thomas.