KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee’s ball-hawking defense wasn’t impressed with Western Kentucky coach Bobby Petrino’s offensive hype, or quarterback Brandon Doughty’s first-game success.
The Vols forced five turnovers in a span of six plays over five consecutive series in the first quarter, including interception returns for touchdowns by Justin Coleman and Cameron Sutton, and Tennessee shellacked the Hilltoppers, 52-20, Saturday before 86,783 fans at a steamy Neyland Stadium.
In all, Western Kentucky committed seven turnovers – Doughty’s five interceptions and two lost fumbles – and the Vols got 31 points off the first five miscues and went on to avenge a 49-7 loss to Petrino in 2011 when he was at Arkansas.
“I’ve never been associated with anything like that,” said Tennessee coach Butch Jones, now 2-0 in Knoxville. “I thought we were opportunistic in the first half.”
It was an offensive meltdown of epic proportions.
WKU led, 3-0, after an impressive opening drive.
Then, the Hilltoppers couldn’t get out of their own way.
Coleman, a cornerback, picked off Doughty and returned it 23 yards for a go-ahead touchdown. It was 7-3. The ball bounced off the shoulder of receiver Taywan Taylor and landed in Coleman’s arms.
“It was a play that created great energy and a huge momentum swing,” Coleman said. “It was just something that you could say the football gods offered, and because those who work hard will gain rewards from it.”
Two plays later, Doughty was picked off by true freshman Cameron Sutton, who returned it 36 yards for the Vols’ second pick-six – 57 seconds after Coleman’s defensive gem – and the Vols led, 14-3. Sutton is the Vols’ first true freshman with an interception return for a touchdown since Eric Berry against Florida in 1977.
Linebacker Dontavis Sapp then caused and recovered a fumble by Keshawn Simpson at WKU’s 28. Quarterback Justin Worley hit freshman Marquez North for a 20-yard gain, but the drive stalled at the 6 and Michael Palardy kicked a 23-yard field goal, stretching the lead to 17-3.
Vols linebacker Brent Brewer caused a fumble, strong safety Max Arnold picked the ball up and raced 23 yards to the Hilltoppers’ 12. Tailback Rajion Neal raced in from the 1 for the first of his three rushing touchdowns, pushing the margin to 24-3.
On WKU’s next possession, defensive lineman Corey Miller hurried Doughty, who got the pass away only to watch Brewer get the interception. Marlin Lane scored four plays later, scoring from the 3.
In a 4-minute, 46-second stretch, Tennessee scored 31 consecutive points off what will certainly become the most infamous string of turnovers in recent WKU football history.
“We shot ourselves in the foot,” Petrino said.
Five times, coach.
In the wacky stretch orchestrated by a Tennessee defense, highlighted by aggressive the-ball-is-mine mentality in the secondary, the Vols’ offense put up a meager 39 yards of offense. At halftime, Tennessee had just 84 yards of offense and led 31-17 after WKU showed a little life with two second-quarter touchdowns, one resulting from a blocked punt.
The Hilltoppers nearly scored a third time, but Brian Randolph intercepted Doughty in the end zone. Randolph later got a second pick – also in the end zone – that led to Tennessee’s final touchdown, Worley’s 1-yard pass to Brendan Downs to cap an 80-yard, eight-play drive.
“I haven’t touched the ball since high school,” Randolph said, “so I couldn’t take a knee.”
Tennessee’s seven takeaways was its highest total since Nov. 10, 1984, when the Vols forced seven turnovers – five fumble recoveries, two interceptions – in a 41-9 win over Memphis. The five interceptions are the most since 1999 against Kentucky.
Doughty is the first WKU quarterback to throw five interceptions in one game since 1977. He came into Saturday’s game with one pick in 59 attempts.
“It’s not going to be much fun (in the film room Sunday),” Petrino said of Doughty, “because you have to sit there and grind through it and see the mistakes and really work hard at learning from it. As soon as we get done with the video, we need to bury it.
“He’s a good learner, so he’ll learn a lot from this game.”
Doughty completed 27-of-34 passes – with no interceptions – for 271 yards and a touchdown in the Hilltoppers’ 35-26 season-opening win over Kentucky in Nashville, Tenn. Against the Vols, Doughty went 15-of-34 for 222 yards and one touchdown.
The Football Bowl Subdivision record for consecutive turnovers is seven straight series. Florida State had four fumbles and three interceptions in its first seven possessions in a 42-13 loss to Florida in 1972.
Defensive end Jordan Williams had a hard time explaining the zaniness on Shields-Watkins Field.
“It was getting hard to believe,” he said.
Up 31-17 heading into the second half and momentum teetering on a fence ready to fall either way, the Vols grabbed it back with a 59-yard, five-play drive to open the second half – the possession was set up by Vincent Dallas’ 36-yard kickoff return to the Vols’ 41.
When Neal scored from the 1, Tennessee could breathe again.
“We went into halftime and had some momentum,” Petrino said. “They did a really nice job with their first drive coming out of halftime.”
After a WKU field goal by Garrett Schwettman, Neal cashed in again on a 7-yard scamper as the Vols opened a 45-20 spread.
“I think we got into a rhythm,” said Neal, who carried 15 times for 74 yards – he had 28 at halftime. “We put some drives together, gave the (offensive) line a little more rhythm and with me it was getting more reads and things like that.
“In this league (Southeastern Conference) you have to be able to run the ball. That’s something coach Jones preaches to us to do. We felt it was coming and we were ready for the challenge.”
Lane led the ground attack with 97 yards on 16 carries, 75 coming after halftime. The three touchdowns were the most by a Vol running back since Monterio Hardesty scored three times against Kentucky in 2009.
Antonio Andrews had a game-high 111 rushing yards to lead Western Kentucky.
Worley completed 11-of-19 passes for 142 yards with one interception, coming out strong in the third quarter after a lackluster first half.
“I wouldn’t say I was struggling,” he said. “We had a couple of drops that hurt. We couldn’t get in a rhythm based on the number of plays we had.”
Following two tune-up starts, the Vols are looking down the barrel of a big-boy shotgun as the Vols gear up to play second-ranked Oregon, which clobbered Virginia, 59-10, on Saturday. The Ducks slapped the Vols, 48-13, on Sept. 11, 2010, in Knoxville.
“It’s going to be a big step up next week,” Randolph said. “They’re a great opponent and we have a ton of respect for them, so we know we’re going to be in for a dog fight.”
Western Kentucky 3 14 3 0 – 20
Tennessee 24 7 14 7 – 52
WKU – FG Garrett Schwettman 37, 7:55
TENN – Justin Coleman 23 interception return (Michael Palardy kick), 4:24
TENN – Cameron Sutton 36 interception return (Palardy kick), 3:27
TENN – FG Palardy 23, 1:20
TENN – Rajion Neal 1 run (Palardy kick), 0:31
TENN – Marlin Lane 8 run (Palardy kick), 14:38
WKU – Leon Allen 1 run (Schwettman kick), 6:47
WKU – Nicholas Norris 6 pass from Brandon Doughty (Schwettman kick), 0:23
TENN – Neal 1 run (Palardy kick), 13:10
WKU – FG Schwettman 33, 8:42
TENN – Neal 7 run (Palardy kick), 5:59
TENN – Brandon Downs 1 pass from Justin Worley (Palardy kick), 9:56
Attendance – 86,783
First Downs 21 20
Rushes-Yards 34-171 45-240
Passing Yards 222 142
Comp-Att-Int 17-36-5 11-19-1
Return Yards 32 117
Punts-Avg. 3-41.0 4-34.8
Fumbles-Lost 4-2 0-0
Penalties-Yards 8-70 2-17
Time of Possession 32:36 27:24
RUSHING – Western Kentucky: Antonio Andrews 13-111, Leon Allen 13-52, Keshawn Simpson 3-9, Damarcus Smith 3-9, Brandon Doughty 2-minus 10; Tennessee: Marlin Lane 16-97, Rajion Neal 15-74, Deanthonie Summerhill 9-40, Alton Howard 1-20, Alden Hill 2-11, Team-minus 1.
PASSING – Western Kentucky: Doughty 17-34-5-222, D. Smith 0-2-0-0; Tennessee: Justin Worley 11-19-1-42.
RECEIVING – Western Kentucky: Allen 4-35, Joel German 3-46, Willie McNeal 3-43, Andrews 1-43, Mitchell Henry 1-33, K. Jones 1-10, Tim Gorski 1-7, Nicholas Norris 1-6, Taywan Taylor 1-1, Cameron Clemmons 1-minus 2; Tennessee: Josh Smith 3-36, Johnathon Johnson 2-57, Marquez North 2-27, Howard 1-8, Lane 1-7, Jacob Carter 1-6.
TACKLES – Western Kentucky: Xavius Boyd 8-5 13, Jonathan Dowling 4-2 6, Andrew Jackson 3-3 6, Arius Wright 2-3 5, James Hervey 2-3 5, Cam Thomas 1-4 5, Daqual Randall 0-5 5; Tennessee: LaDarrell McNeail 5-5 10, Dontavis Sapp 5-3 8, Brian Randolph 4-4 8, A.J. Johnson 3-5 8, Justin Coleman 4-2 6, Cameron Sutton 4-0 4, Jordan Williams 2-2 4.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)