LEXINGTON, Ky. — Hendon Hooker threw a career-high four touchdown passes, including a 6-yard insurance score to Cedric Tillman early in the fourth quarter, and Tennessee held off No. 18 Kentucky 45-42 on Saturday night to halt a two-game losing streak.
The Volunteers (5-4, 3-3 Southeastern Conference) emerged from a bye to strike quickly in a back-and-forth game between border rivals that totaled 1,073 yards combined. They needed just three plays and 37 seconds to score their first two TDs, drove 35 yards in 16 seconds for a go-ahead field goal before halftime, and ticked off only 37 seconds on the way to another go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter.
Hooker’s final TD to Tillman with 11:40 remaining proved to be the biggest as Kentucky (6-3, 4-3) got within a field goal on Will Levis‘ 24-yard touchdown toss to Izayah Cummings. The Wildcats got one last chance after Chase McGrath‘s missed field goal but couldn’t take advantage, turning the ball over on downs with 29 seconds left.
It was Tennessee’s first win over a ranked opponent since 2018, also against Kentucky.
Alontae Taylor came up with Tennessee’s biggest defensive play with 6:23 left in the third, reading Levis perfectly to jump a route for a 56-yard interception return for a touchdown that gave the Volunteers their first 10-point lead. Kentucky pulled to 38-35, but Hooker answered with a 6-yard scoring pass to Tillman that provided breathing room.
Hooker completed 15 of 20 passes for a career-best 316 yards with TDs to JaVonta Payton, Velus Jones Jr., tight end Jacob Warren and Tillman. Jabari Small rushed for a 37-yard TD as Tennessee bounced back from losses to then-No. 13 Mississippi and then-No. 4 Alabama, avoiding consecutive losses to Kentucky for the first time since 1976-77.
Levis threw for 372 yards and three touchdowns for Kentucky, which stayed competitive with several long, time-consuming drives. He also ran for two scores. But the Wildcats’ defense couldn’t slow Hooker or the Volunteers’ high-speed offense, which scored on three consecutive second-half possessions to stay ahead.
Kentucky’s home loss will probably cost the Wildcats at least a few spots in the poll – and possibly their Top 25 ranking altogether.
Tennessee moved the ball virtually at will against a Kentucky defense that just couldn’t keep up. Strong as Hooker was with his arm, he also contributed a couple of key runs that helped the Volunteers finish with 145 yards on the ground.
Kentucky mounted long drives that had the Vols on their heels and appeared to seize momentum with a 21-14 lead. The defense just couldn’t slow down Tennessee.
Tennessee hosts top-ranked Georgia on Nov. 13.
Kentucky visits last-place Vanderbilt in its SEC finale on Nov. 13.