KNOXVILLE – Tennessee forced seven turnovers and got three rushing touchdowns from Rajion Neal in a 52-20 win over Western Kentucky on Saturday (see more photos here).
Here are some position-by-position grades:
It was a tale of two halves for starting quarterback Justin Worley. The junior was way off target in the first, finishing just 3-of-9. He showed vast improvement in the second half, though, completing eight of his final 10 throws. In total he had 142 yard, one touchdown and one interception. Though he didn’t inspire a ton of confidence in his accuracy, he gets some bonus points for continuing to manage the offense well, for helping call good protections and, for the most part, taking care of the football.
Running backs: B+
It was another productive day for the duo of Marlin Lane and Rajion Neal. This week Lane led the way in terms of yardage (97), but it was Neal who benefitted near the goal line with three scores. It was the first three-touchdown game for a UT running back since Montario Hardesty took three in against Kentucky in 2009. Deanthonie Summerhill added 40 yards in relief of the starters. The walk-on might be positioning himself to compete for the third spot behind Neal and Lane.
Wide receivers/tight ends: B-
It was a mixed bag for this group. The bad was a dropped pass by Jason Croom that could’ve led to a huge gain, possibly a touchdown. But there were some bright spots as well such as an acrobatic 20-yard reception by Marquez North, a 37-yard catch by Johnathon Johnson and three catches for 36 yards for freshman Josh Smith. Tight end Brendan Downs seems to have a knack for getting open near the goal line – he caught his second short touchdown in as many weeks.
Offensive line: A-
Like much of the offense, it had a hard time finding a rhythm in the first half, but, in total, it was a good day with the Vols giving up just one sack and gaining 240 yards on the ground. This veteran group has shown it can create running room on a pretty consistent basis. Now the challenge will come with bigger and faster defensive fronts looming on the schedule.
Defensive line: B
The D-line gets some credit for the flurry of turnovers, even though it didn’t directly cause any of them. There was some pressure. In total, the Vols were credited with four QB hurries and two sacks – 1.5 for defensive end Jordan Williams and .5 for Trevarris Saulsberry. The coaches will be looking for more pressure and a more consistent effort against the run going forward. The Hilltoppers piled up five yards per carry on their way to 171 yards on the ground – including some long runs by running backs Antonio Andrews and Leon Allen.
The ‘backers joined in the turnover party. Brent Brewer had an interception and a forced fumble. Dontavis Sapp forced and recovered a fumble. Sapp also had two TFLs, while A.J. Johnson added eight stops, including one TFL. They share some of the blame in the shortcoming in run defense and some of the busts in pass coverage. However, the good outweighed the bad in this one and when a defense makes enough big plays, it overrides a lot of other mistakes.
Make no mistake, there were some errors from this group, but when a team picks off five passes (four of them from the secondary) and creates two touchdowns, this unit deserves to be in the “A” range. Safety Brian Randolph had two of the interceptions, while cornerbacks Justin Coleman and Cameron Sutton each had a pick-six. Coleman’s was more of a gift, while Sutton made a great read on his, but they both count the same on the scoreboard. Safety LaDarrell McNeil had a strong night as well, leading the team with 10 tackles and adding a tackle for loss and a pass deflection. Backup Max Arnold also scooped up a fumble and returned it for 23 yards.
Special teams: B-
It was a really good effort from the special teams with one glaring exception – giving up a blocked punt on what coach Butch Jones said was a two-man rush from WKU. At the time, it changed the momentum. The Vols should’ve gone into the half with a 21-point lead, but that play allowed the Hilltoppers to cut it to a much more manageable two-touchdown deficit. The return game was fine despite the absence of Devrin Young. Jacob Carter (punt returner) and Vincent Dallas (kick returner) both did a good job fielding kicks and got what they could without making any mistakes. Michael Palardy is off to a good start this season. He had a punt downed at the 1 and remained perfect on the year on field goals and extra points. He also had three of his nine kickoffs downed for a touchback.
It wasn’t perfect, but Tennessee found a way to win by more than most expected heading into Saturday against a team with some NFL talent and an accomplished head coach. Not all of the turnovers were a result of good preparation, but the Vols were in the right spot at the right time seven times. Coaches have to get some credit for that. Limited mistakes – just one turnover and two penalties on Saturday – also speaks well of the discipline this team has. The tests will just get harder and harder from here, though. The Vols must keep improving and, frankly, might need something as crazy as seven turnovers to have a shot at Oregon next week.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga