KNOXVILLE – It looked like Tennessee (2-0) might be in for a long afternoon against Western Kentucky on Saturday. The Hilltoppers started the game with a methodical, 14-play drive and a field goal. They then stopped UT, forced a punt and got the ball back and began moving again.
That’s when UT’s defense took over.
Five of the next six plays the Hilltoppers (1-1) would run on offense ended in a turnover – two of them went back for touchdowns for the Vols. When all the damage was done, UT caused seven WKU turnovers, the most the Vols have forced since playing Memphis in 1984, on its way to a comfortable 52-20 win.
"We were opportunistic," said UT head coach Butch Jones. “It's a great lesson to our football team about preparing and having a great week of preparation."
The turnovers came in bunches. Tennessee corner Justin Coleman started them by intercepting a Brandon Doughty pass that bounced off the hands of WKU freshman receiver Taywan Taylor. Coleman raced 23 yards for UT’s first score.
"We just gave a hundred percent effort, and I mean the D-line gave a great push, and the DBs gave a hundred percent, and when the quarterback released the ball – It was just our ball in the air," said Coleman.
True freshman cornerback Cameron Sutton did the same on the next drive, stepping in front of another Doughty pass and running it back 36 yards for another score. The story continued that way for WKU.
“It was fun to be part of,” said defensive tackle Daniel Hood. “There are many games where we don’t have five total turnovers, much less five in a row, so it was awesome. Got the whole team and the stadium excited.”
The Hilltoppers coughed up two fumbles and threw another interception on their next three drives – leading to 17 points for UT – a 23-yard Michael Palardy field goal and one touchdown run for both Marlin Lane (8 yards) and Rajion Neal (1 yard ) – to take a 31-3 lead.
WKU fought back, though, cutting the deficit to 31-17 at the half thanks to another long drive and a blocked Michael Palardy punt that set the Hilltoppers up with great field position. Despite a commanding 236-84 edge in total yardage, WKU went into the break down by a 14-point margin.
“They’re a good football team and we knew it was going to be a battle,” said Jones. “Our mindset was that it would be a four-quarter game and if it went to four overtimes, we would be ready for that too. There’s a reason [WKU] has won championships in the past.”
Even with the lead, Tennessee’s offense wasn’t impressive in the first half. Quarterback Justin Worley was off target, hitting just three of his first nine attempts. The Vols were 0-for-5 on third-down conversion attempts. The running game was pedestrian as well, gaining just 35 yards in the first half.
“We couldn’t get in a rhythm,” Jones said of the offense in the first half
But Tennessee’s offense picked up in the second half. Neal added two touchdown runs (1,7 yards). Worley connected on some big passes to receivers Josh Smith and Johnathon Johnson and the run game found more space. In total, the Vols totaled 298 yards of total offense in the half.
“We didn’t change the plan [at half.],” Jones added. “We just went back and we executed better. Hats off to the o-line and I thought our backs ran hard.”
Neal ended the game with 15 carries for 74 yards and three touchdowns. Marlin Lane added 16 carries for 97 yards and a touchdown. Worley, who finished 11-of-19 for 142 yards, found tight end Brendan Downs for a short touchdown pass to cap off the scoring for UT. The Vols outscored the Hilltoppers 21-3 in total in the second half.
And while the offense found another gear in the second half, the story of the game remained the rash of turnovers for WKU. There wasn’t one common factor in all of them. Some of them were bad reads, sometimes bad ball security and in the case of Coleman’s interception, it was bad execution for the Sun Belt squad.
“We just got beat,” said WKU head coach Bobby Petrino. “I don’t know if I’ve ever been through the five turnovers like that. We’re disappointed. We didn’t perform the way we’re capable of performing.”
Added Jones: “It’s up for the coaches to put our players in the best situations and it’s up to the player to execute. And they executed, they made the plays, they didn’t drop the ball. We always talk about ball disruption. I thought we had a great game plan, but they’re the ones that executed it.”
Clean football continues: Much was made of Tennessee’s “clean” performance last week against Austin Peay, a game in which the Vols committed zero penalties and had just one turnover.
That trend continued, in large part, against Western Kentucky. The Vols had just two penalties for 17 yards and had just one turnover – a Justin Worley interception.
"It's just discipline,” said Jones. “We talked about it this week, we have to be a team that overachieves."
Injury update: The following players did not play: WR Devrin Young, CB Michael Williams, DE Corey Vereen, TE Alex Ellis, TE Justin Meredith, CB Riyahd Jones, LB Raiques Crump, WR Ryan Jenkins, LB Curt Maggitt and DE Jacques Smith.
Linebacker Greg King left the game and did not return.
Jones said Maggitt (ACL) was “close” to playing, but they are still evaluating him. He also said Smith (thumb) should play at Oregon next week.
• Tennessee has scored 97 points through two games. That's the most in the opening two games since 1996 (also 97 points).
• The announced attendance was 86,783.
• Dating back to 2012 and stretching to the final minute of the first half Saturday, the Vols went over 94 minutes without a penalty.
• Sutton's interception and return for a touchdown was the first time a UT true freshman has done that since Eric Berry (2007, at Florida.).
• The Vols used a three-tight end set a few times on Saturday. Left guard Alex Bullard was one of the tight ends, backup Mack Crowder filled in for him at left guard, and the other two were Joseph Ayres and Brendan Downs.
• Neal became the first Vol to run for three touchdowns in a game since Montario Hardesty (vs. Kentucky, 2009).
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga