KNOXVILLE — Tennessee slam-dunked another basketball school, this time thanks to generating turnovers like a Bruce Pearl press.
Beating Western Kentucky wasn’t the uncontested layup that last week’s 45-0 win against Austin Peay proved to be. But Bobby Petrino’s Hilltoppers, a popular pick among pundits to pull the two-touchdown upset after beating Kentucky in Petrino’s debut, ultimately provided little more drama while watching Butch Jones’ Volunteers pull away for a 52-20 victory.
In fact, it was the scheming Petrino’s play-calling that was most offensive for Tennessee. The Volunteers intercepted Brandon Doughty five times, returning two for touchdowns, and also recovered two fumbles on the Hilltoppers’ end of the field.
Five of the turnovers came in six-play stretch in the first quarter, a jaw-dropping barrage that began when a Doughty pass bounced off receiver Taywan Taylor’s hands to UT’s Justin Coleman, who returned the interception 23 yards for the game’s first touchdown.
Fifty-seven seconds later freshman cornerback Cameron Sutton jumped a rout for a 36-yard pick-six.
Tennessee linebacker Dontavis Sapp forced and recovered a fumble on WKU’s ensuing play from scrimmage, and the Volunteers recovered a fumble and made another interception on the Hilltoppers’ subsequent two plays from scrimmage.
It was as if Petrino handed his players a Tommy Gun with instruction to begin shooting themselves in the foot. And before WKU began to stop the bleeding it was staring at a 31-3 scoreboard with 14:38 left in the first half.
“I’ve never ever been associated with anything like that,” Jones said.
The assembly line of miscues were all the more stunning after Petrino’s squad marched 14 plays for a field goal on the game’s opening drive, converting two third-and-13s and a third-and-4 along the way.
Jones said an even turnover margin would’ve made it “a 60-minute game,” which UT defensive lineman also Daniel Hood suggested.
“It would’ve been really close,” Daniel Hood said, “because they were moving the ball on us a little bit.”
Granted, there’s something to that “stats are for losers” adage, but Western outgained UT by 150 yards in the first half. Particularly disturbing to Jones was the Vols’ 0-for-5 showing on third-down conversions, which included a third-and-one, third-and-three and third-and-four.
“The third and short is unacceptable on offense,” Jones said. “We have to get first downs.”
Well, under normal circumstances, anyway. But for a while, every play seemed like Christmas morning.
“Every one was just like a new surprise,” said UT defensive end Jordan Williams, who was in on two of Tennessee’s sacks.
It was the most turnovers for a Tennessee opponent since Memphis committed seven in 1984, and the most interceptions since UT came up with five against shallow Hal Mumme’s Kentucky Wildcats in ’99.
“I don’t remember that many interceptions and that many turnovers back-to-back-to-back-to-back,” Petrino said. “It really dug us a hole. But I was encouraged by the way we drove the ball and moved it in the second quarter and I felt like we got back in the game. We went into halftime 31-17.”
Tennessee’s offense had a second half worth watching thanks to halftime adjustments — something that seemed to be lacking under Jones’ predecessor, Derek Dooley.
The Vols opened the second half with a five-play, 59-yard drive which Rajion Neal capped with a 1-yard run.
“We thought it was critical getting the ball in the second half to have a sustainable drive and go down and get points,” Jones said. “We challenged our offense at halftime and they responded.”
Tennessee appears to be about where Jones expected after his first two games. And he expects the degree of difficulty to increase exponentially next week at Oregon (3:30 p.m.).
“Obviously, we’re going to enjoy this one,” Jones said, “but moving forward I think we all know what’s in store next week. … They’re a great football team and it’s going to be a great challenge. We’re going to have to be in the best shape we’ve ever been in. It’s a long trip, but it’s going to be a great opportunity.”
Certainly, the Vols were opportunistic on Saturday.
Notes: Tennessee High alumnus Brendan Downs caught his second TD pass of the season. Dobyns-Bennett graduate Devaun Swafford, a defensive back Jones is high on, had a breakup and a tackle. … Western Kentucky defensive tackles coach Don Dunn played football at East Tennessee State. He coached at David Crockett in 1976. … Linebacker Curt Maggitt (knee), defensive end Jacques Smith (thumb) and running back/kick returner Devrin Young (hand) missed the game. Smith apparently is likely to play at Oregon, but Jones appeared more uncertain about Maggitt. Young’s expected to miss 4-6 weeks after break his hand this week In practice. … Attendance was down considerably from the Austin Peay game. It appeared there were 20-25 percent more empty seats. Attendance was 86,783 after an announced attendance in excess of 97,000 last week. … UT went nearly six quarters before committing the first penalty of the Jones era.