After trailing 13-3 at halftime, the Vols (5-5, 3-3 Southeastern Conference) replaced Brian Maurer with Jarrett Guarantano at quarterback to start the third quarter and quickly got two TD drives taking up just 6½ minutes.
Officials initially ruled Josh Palmer out of bounds on his 12-yard catch from Guarantano before replay review showed he got a foot down inbounds on the right sideline on the go-ahead score. His TD followed Marquez Callaway’s fine 17-yard touchdown grab that capped a 75-yard drive covering just 2:57.
“Some of the throws were there and we made a change and obviously we were better there,” Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said. “We didn’t change any calls. We executed better.”
The Wildcats got one final chance after Marquan McCall recovered Ty Chandler’s fumble at the Tennessee 45-yard line and drove all the way to the 1. But quarterback Lynn Bowden was tackled for no gain on fourth-and-goal at the 2 with 1:17 remaining, the last of Kentucky’s three failed fourth-down attempts after halftime.
“An extremely disappointing loss,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. “It comes down to a goal-line stand.
“Our players fought extremely hard. You come up a yard short and it’s a very, very difficult, tough pill to swallow.”
Tennessee was outgained 327-296 yardage-wise but topped Kentucky 160-129 in the second half to win for the fourth time in five games and reach .500.
The Vols are within a win of bowl-eligibility after missing the postseason last year.
Gaurantano completed 7 of 8 passes for 115 yards and rushed six times for 30 yards. Maurer finished 7-for-16 for 98 yards.
Callaway hauled down four receptions for 103 yards.
The Wildcats (4-5, 2-5) took the initial lead with touchdown runs by A.J. Rose and Kavosiey Smoke of 2 and 22 yards, respectively, but were shut out after that. A missed extra point on Smoke’s touchdown loomed large, forcing Kentucky to go for a TD late instead of possible tying field goal.
Tennessee: That 1-4 start is now a distant memory. Down but not out, the Vols found a spark after halftime with the veteran Guarantano.
Their defense was even more impressive in bottling up Kentucky over the final three quarters and making three fourth-down stops.
Kentucky: After opening the game with a clock-chewing, 75-yard touchdown drive of 10:18 and getting another TD off a blocked punt, the Wildcats stalled offensively.
They also failed to slow the Vols, falling under .500 and adding urgency to their quest for bowl-eligibility.
Tennessee visits Missouri on Nov. 23 after a bye.
Kentucky goes to Vanderbilt on Nov. 16.