The last time Tennessee crossed paths with Bobby Petrino, the coach with the checkered off-the-field history directed his No. 8-ranked Arkansas Razorbacks to an embarrassing 49-7 whuppin’ of the Vols in a nationally televised football smack down in Fayetteville.
“We’re getting our scars this year,” then-coach Derek Dooley said afterwards. “It’s like we’re in an advanced class of beat-down learning.”
Dooley didn’t get a lot out of the lesson Petrino dished out and lasted 14 more games before being fired after three dismal seasons on The Hill. He was succeeded by Butch Jones.
Two days shy of five months after the November 2011 game, Petrino’s highly successful career crashed and burned in the aftermath of a humiliating motorcycle accident. His mistress, 25-year-old Jessica Dorrell, a former Lady Razorbacks volleyball player and Petrino’s employee, was on the back of the cycle when the wreck occurred.
Petrino, who bailed on the Atlanta Falcons in the dead of night before completing the first year of a five-year, $24 million contract to take the Arkansas job, spent a year trying to rehabilitate his devastated personal life, although his coaching skills have never been questioned.
The Arkansas athletic director, Jeff Long, in announcing the firing determined that Petrino lied about Dorrell being involved in the accident and had an adulterous affair with the young woman. The AD also determined that Petrino made a $20,000 cash gift to Dorrell and she received preferential treatment from Petrino in her hiring to the football office position.
On Dec. 10, 2012, Western Kentucky gave Petrino another chance – after several schools made the decision to bypass Petrino – and a four-year, $850,000 contract to perform his on-field magic that has turned Arkansas into a Top 10 program. WKU jumped at the chance to get Petrino after coach Willie Taggart left for South Florida.
In his debut last week, Petrino’s Hilltoppers handily beat rival Kentucky.
Saturday in Knoxville at Neyland Stadium, Petrino and the Vols meet again. Game time is 12:21 p.m. and the SEC Network will televise the action.
And you can bet the Vols are fretting.
Many of the current Vols were around when Petrino smashed them in Fayetteville, zipping into a 21-0 lead and continuing the thrashing until almost everyone either turned to another channel or left Razorback Stadium.
It was that bad, probably even worse, because the Vols appeared to roll over as Arkansas scored 28 second-half points to complete the mortifying rout.
Arkansas piled up 499 yards of total offense, averaging 8.8 yards per play against the Vols, who reached a stage of ineptness rarely seen around Knoxville.
Junior quarterback Justin Worley, then a jittery freshman playing for injured Tyler Bray, completed 15-of-29 passes for 208 yards, including a 50-yarder to running back Rajion Neal. Worley had no touchdown passes and one interception.
“I was a true freshman at the time,” he said in a release posted on the school’s website earlier in the week. “That’s definitely in the past now. Just being able to take a leadership role, being able to take command of these guys and have them respond to me and my playing style has been a major thing for me.”
Against Austin Peay, Worley completed 11-of-13 passes for 104 yards and three touchdowns – all in the first half, and the Vols went on to easily post their 800th all-time victory.
Worley will start Saturday not as a fill-in but as the offensive leader, and he’s better suited for the assignment than he was in 2011, bolstered by a solid first-half performance against Austin Peay.
“You could tell as the (Austin Peay) game went on he got a little ‘swag’ to him,” offensive tackle Ja’Wuan James said earlier in the week. “I liked the way he played and I like his leadership.”
Western Kentucky’s defense gave up 419 yards of total offense to the Wildcats, but the Hilltoppers’ offense put up 487 that included a spectacular 27-for-34, 271-yard, one-touchdown effort by junior quarterback Brandon Doughty.
Doughty, a 6-foot-3-inch, 210-pounder from Davie, Fla., who tore his ACL three plays into his only start of 2011 against Indiana State and missed the rest of the season, is sold on Petrino’s offensive genius.
Saturday was Doughty’s first start since his season-ending injury.
“The thing is,” Doughty told the Bowling Green (Ky.) Daily News, “the knowledge that (Petrino) knows is absolutely crazy. He’ll come to the sideline and be like, ‘Hey man, they’re gonna be in this, throw it to this guy, he’s gonna be open. I promise. It’s an unbelievable experience and to see it work live … it’s awesome.”
Six different receivers had at least 20 yards in receptions and two running backs – Antonio Andrews and Leon Allen, had 99 and 92 yards, respectively.
Neal paced the Vols’ ground attack with 142 yards on 16 carries, with a touchdown.
In 2011, the Vols rushed for 138 yards against Arkansas and Neal carried four times for a paltry 24 yards.
The Razorbacks had a 28-point, third-quarter lead last season, but that was nothing new. At that point in the season, Tennessee had been outscored, 118-22, after halftime.
“It hurts,” Neal said after the game, “because we’re so close but so far away.”
Turns out the Vols weren’t close at all.
They struggled to beat Vanderbilt, 27-21, in overtime the following week only to lose to Kentucky, which started a reserve center at quarterback, 10-7, and fail to become bowl eligible. It was the Vols’ first loss to Kentucky in 26 years – the nation’s second-longest winning streak against an opponent at the time behind only Penn State’s 29-game streak over Temple.
In 2012, Tennessee suffered through its third consecutive seven-loss season under Dooley and again sat at home during the bowl season.
Dooley was kicked out of Knoxville – he’s now an assistant coach with the Dallas Cowboys – and Jones has marched into town to rescue the once-proud Vols program.
And here comes Petrino.
Buckle up. It could be a another bumpy ride.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org)