Vols taking advantage
By Grant Ramey | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Tennessee spent the last three seasons under Derek Dooley stealing losses from the jaws of victory.
Saturday, for the first time in who knows how long, the Vols stole a blowout from the jaws of a dog fight.
Tennessee turned over Western Kentucky seven times and, despite being out-gained 393 to 383 in the total yards category, won 52-20 in a game that, really, was much closer than the story told by the scoreboard.
“General Neyland, maxim two: ‘Play for and make the breaks, and when one comes your way, score,’” Butch Jones said to open his post-game press conference. “I thought we were opportunistic in the first half. Really proud of our kids, coaching staff. Our kids were ready to play, but a lot of work to do.”
That work to do can wait until Monday on the practice field or Sunday in the film room. At least for Saturday, Jones and his team can bask in the glow of being 2-0. The fact is, a Dooley-coached team probably doesn’t beat Western Kentucky, let alone beat the Hilltoppers by more than four touchdowns.
“It’s up to the coaches to put our players in the best possible situations and it’s up to them to execute,” Jones said. “They executed. We didn’t drop the football, we finished the deal and that was great to see defensively.”
When Western Kentucky drove 55 yards on 14 plays before settling for an opening-drive field goal and a 3-0 lead, it looked like the Vols had their hands full with a Sun Belt team that, before the week was out, had turned into a trendy upset pick. But Tennessee’s young defense settled down and settled in.
Justin Coleman and Cam Sutton returned back-to-back interceptions for touchdowns. Dontavis Sapp and Max Arnold scooped up fumbles before Brent Brewer added an interception. And that was just the first quarter.
When the dust settled, Tennessee had forced five turnovers in six plays, needing just 10 plays to score 31 unanswered points.
“Tremendous, tremendous teaching opportunities for this football team,” Jones said. “Showing resilience, the emotion of the game, the momentum, the back-and-forth.”
That back-and-forth was cause for an out-of-rhythm offense that in the first half managed just 84 total yards behind a struggling Justin Worley at quarterback.
Those struggles and a blocked punt helped the Hilltoppers put 14 points in the second quarter to make it 31-17 and put worry back in the Neyland Stadium stands.
But Butch settled his team down at the break and the Vols came out of the locker room and put together scoring drives of 59, 75 and 80 yards to keep WKU at arm’s length.
The same couldn’t be said for similar situations last year.
“I remember last year in the Florida game I could feel the tides turning and it felt like somehow there was nothing we could do about it,” safety Brian Randolph, who had two interceptions Saturday, said. “But this year it feels different.”
The final box score didn’t reflect the final score. Western Kentucky ran more plays, had more first downs, more passing yards and was better on third down conversions.
But Tennessee didn’t reflect the Tennessee of the last three years on Saturday, either. Instead of giving away a winnable game, the Vols helped themselves to gift after gift in what quickly turned into a blowout.
“We were opportunistic,” Jones said. “I think, again, it’s a great lesson to our football team about preparing and having a great week of preparation and playing with an energy level and a passion.”
If the first two weeks of the season are any indication after just two penalties and two turnovers against Austin Peay and Western Kentucky the Vols will be forcing opponents to beat them, not the other way around. And that’s the polar opposite of what Tennessee fans have become used to.
“We can’t beat ourselves,” Jones said. “If we beat ourselves, we’re not going to have a chance.
“If we start turning the football over and having key and untimely mistakes, then we’re in trouble. Our kids follow the plan to win.”
Grant Ramey is an award-winning sports writer for The Daily Times. You can email him at (email@example.com) Follow him on Twitter @GrantRamey