Western Kentucky had Tennessee’s attention long before the Hilltoppers knocked off in-state rival Kentucky for the second straight year on Saturday.
Nose guard Daniel Hood, who had an interception in Tennessee’s 45-0 season-opening win over Austin Peay, said he wasn’t that surprised that the Hilltoppers beat the Wildcats at a neutral site in Nashville, Tenn.
“We’ve been preparing for them really since the summer,” Hood said Monday during the Vols’ press conference at Neyland Stadium. “We knew they had a lot of talent coming in. We know they have a great coaching staff there, so we knew they were going to be really talented and be a tough team to beat.
“We saw the score (35-26) and it was kind of what we expected.”
The Hilltoppers, members of the Sun Belt Conference, was one of eight FCS teams that defeated FBS opponents on Saturday.
WKU came out of the victory over Kentucky brimming with confidence.
“Starting off the season undefeated, 1-0 in the SEC, we have another tough opponent next week in Tennessee, another SEC school,” Hilltoppers running back Antonio Andrews was quoted as saying in an Associated Press story. “So we’re hoping to go 2-0.”
While the Hilltoppers were off and running, the Wildcats were befuddled.
“We looked out of plate,” new coach Mark Stoops said.
Coming to Knoxville won’t be a big deal for WKU, or its new coach Bobby Petrino.
Petrino’s exits at Louisville, the Atlanta Falcons and Arkansas’ Razorbacks were acrimonious, but he was flung into the ashes of despair when the lied to Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long about an extramarital affair with a subordinate.
But WKU athletic director Todd Stewart sent a text to Petrino last December about whether he would be interested in coaching the Hilltoppers. Petrino responded within five minutes.
Petrino was introduced three days later as WKU’s next football coach, despite a salary cut of $2.65 million.
So, Petrino will roar into Knoxville on Saturday – the game will be televised by the SEC Network and start at 12:21 p.m. – with a 76-26 record and BCS bowl victories at Louisville and Arkansas to his credit.
He’s also won five of six games against Kentucky, adding a bit more folklore to Petrino’s reputation.
“It’s great and it puts a smile on my face, there’s no question about that,” Petrino said of the win over Stoops’ Wildcats.
Now, he’ll take another shot at Tennessee.
The Vols who were in Fayetteville in November 2011 haven’t forgotten what Petrino’s Hogs did to them. Arkansas humiliated Tennessee, 49-7, in coach Derek Dooley’s second of three disastrous seasons in Knoxville.
“It was a pretty rough night for the Vols,” said Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley, who made his third game in place of the injured Tyler Bray that fateful night. “Hopefully, we can go out and have a little more success.”
Worley, who completed 11-of-13 passes for 104 yards and a touchdown in one half of play against Austin Peay, said he’s made big strides since the embarrassing loss at Arkansas two years ago.
“I was a true freshman at the time,” he said, “and that’s definitely in the past now. Just being able to take a leadership role, command these guys, and have them respond to me and my playing style has been a big thing for me.”
The WKU defense Worley will face this week is nothing like the porous unit Austin Peay threw at him in the opener.
The Hilltoppers had a 35-17 lead before giving up two touchdowns in the final 9:52. The Wildcats got a Joe Mansour field goal and a 34-yard scoring pass from Maxwell Smith to Demarco Robinson to make the score more respectable.
“They are physical and they fly around to the football,” Worley said. “They are an impressive group.”
Vols coach Butch Jones looks at the entire package when assessing the Hilltoppers.
“They are an extremely, extremely talented football team,” Jones said. “We knew that in the summer and everything has been confirmed by video evidence. (They have) a lot of NFL prospects. They’re an extremely confident football team and rightfully so.”
Jones said he coached against Petrino twice while serving as a wide receivers coach from 2005-06. The coach said Tennessee will have to be disciplined against the Hilltoppers’ “dynamic” offense.
“I think our players understand they’re going to be a great challenge for us,” Jones said. “They have SEC talent and they’ve played Alabama when (it) was No. 1 and they played LSU when they were No. 1. They understand the different venues.”
The Hilltoppers also have defensive swagger to go along with their high-powered offensive confidence. WKU led the Sun Belt in total defense last season.
“They remind me of our football team we had in 2009 at Central Michigan that finished in the Top 25 and went on the road to beat a good Michigan State team (29-27 on a late field goal),” Jones said. “(WKU) has NFL players, they have swagger, they have confidence and they believe they can play with anyone and everyone in the country, and I think that’s been evident by their body of work over a period of time.”
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org)