KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — To say the Tennessee defense was opportunistic against visiting Western Kentucky on Saturday … is akin to calling the nearby Great Smoky Mountains a little bit hilly.
Justice would just not be served.
What was served, though, were seven WKU turnovers, including Tennessee taking the ball away on five straight possessions during a four-minute stretch late in the first quarter.
Subsequently, Tennessee (2-0) stole away with a rousing 52-20 victory, in front of a sun-splashed, mostly orange-clad crowd of 86,783 at Neyland Stadium.During that dubious stretch of offensive implosion, Western Kentucky (1-1) turned the ball over on five of six offensive plays, including four straight snaps, as the Volunteers capitalized on the miscues and raced to a 31-3 lead.
Although the Hilltoppers showed some offensive signs of life by scoring two touchdowns before halftime, it was all Volunteers in the second half, as they outscored their Sun Belt Conference foe 21-3 after intermission.
“We needed to be 2-0,” said first-year Vols coach Butch Jones, whose team opened with a 45-0 win over Austin Peay last week and plays at No. 2 Oregon next Saturday.
The seven takeaways were the most for Tennessee since posting the same tally against Memphis in 1984. The five interceptions were the most for the Vols since their 1999 win over Kentucky (five INTs).
“I think it’s a combination,” Jones said of whether the WKU turnovers were results of coaches having the players prepared or the players making the plays. “It’s up to the coaches to put our players in the best possible situations, and it’s up to them to execute.
“You know that they executed when we didn’t drop the football, we finished the deal, and that was great to see defensively. We always talk about ball disruptions and that’s big.”
The six turnovers aside (four INTs, two fumbles), Tennessee could manage only a 31-17 halftime edge. In the opening 20 minutes, the Vols offense produced just 84 yards on 24 plays (four first downs.
Meanwhile, WKU was running up and down the field — when they weren’t committing turnovers, that is — racking up 236 yards on 46 plays, including 14 first downs. By intermission, the Hilltoppers held a commanding edge in time of possession — 20:43 to 9:17.
“We just got beat,” said WKU coach Bobby Petrino, whose team knocked off Kentucky last week. “We dug ourselves a hole in the first half. I don’t know if I’ve ever been through the five turnovers that we had with a couple of them for touchdowns, but we did battle back in the second quarter. Our players played hard.”
Led by junior quarterback Justin Worley, the Volunteers offense finally got untracked in the second half, scoring touchdowns on their first two possessions (both sustained drives).
Worley connected on a 37-yard pass to sophomore receiver Johnathon Johnson to set up a 1-yard scoring plunge by senior running back Rajion Neal. He then capped an eight-play, 75-yard drive on UT’s next possession with a 7-yard scoring run.
For the game, Worley completed 11 of 19 passes for 142 yards and a touchdown. Junior running back Marlin Lane finished with 97 rushing yards on 16 carries, while Neal added 74 yards on 15 carries.
“That’s just execution,” Jones said of the offensive turnaround in the second half. “We didn’t change the plan. We actually added to the way we were going to start the game. We went back, and we executed better. Hats off to the offensive line, I thought they established the line of scrimmage again.”
It was the turnovers that put WKU in a big hole early. For what it’s worth, the NCAA record for consecutive turnovers is seven straight series (Florida versus Florida State on Oct. 7, 1972).
The thievery began when junior cornerback Justin Coleman picked off an errant pass from WKU quarterback Brandon Doughty, returning it 23 yards for a touchdown.
Two plays later, Doughty was picked off again, this time by freshman Cameron Sutton, who returned it 36 yards for a touchdown. For the game, Doughty was intercepted five times, including twice in the end zone to halt WKU drives.
On WKU’s next play from scrimmage, running back Keshawn Simpson was stripped of the ball by senior linebacker Dontavis Sapp. Five plays later, kicker Michael Palardy gave the Vols a 17-3 lead on a 23-yard field goal.
And then again on WKU’s very next offensive play, senior running back Antonio Andrews fumbled, setting up a 1-yard run by Neal for a 24-3 lead. Making the quintet of turnovers complete, Doughty was intercepted on the Hilltoppers’ next play by linebacker Brent Brewer, eventually setting up an 8-yard run scoring run by Lane. The Hilltoppers offense set the tone on the game’s first possession, marching from their 25-yard line to Tennessee’s 20 before the drive stalled and Garrett Schwettman gave WKU an early 3-0 lead on a 37-yard field goal.
During the drive, Doughty connected on 6 of 8 passes for 52 yards, including converting a key 3rd-and-13 conversion on a 20-yard completion over the middle to McNeal.
By the end of the game, though, the total offense was just about even with Western Kentucky outgaining the Vols 393-382. WKU’s Andrews led all rushers with 111 yards on just 13 carries. Doughty finished 17 of 34 for 222 yards through the air, but did have the five interceptions.
“I told (the players) to enjoy this and tomorrow we’re moving forward,” Jones said. “We work way too hard. I think the earliest I got home all week, and you can ask my wife this, was about 11:30 at night.
“We work way too hard and sometimes you need to stop and enjoy this. But you know I’ll be at home watching film tonight. We’re a great football team, and it’s going to be a great challenge (at Oregon).”