When the Vols took the field against Western Kentucky the biggest question was clearly how the Tennessee defense would respond against a more high-powered offense. In week 1 of the season, the Hilltoppers offense, under new head coach Bobby Petrino, posted nearly 500 yards and 35 points in a win against Kentucky.
It was one thing for Tennessee to decisively shut out Austin Peay, but Western Kentucky presented a whole separate set of issues for the Vols defense.
Anxiety compounded a little bit when Western Kentucky struck first on a field goal that capped off an impressive drive and then Tennessee was forced to punt the ball back to the Hilltoppers. However, Western Kentucky’s next offensive possession would essentially be the beginning of the end of the game for them as they proceeded to turn the ball over on five consecutive possessions. Tennessee managed to capitalize off of each turnover and took a 31-17 lead into the locker room at halftime.
The Vols then dominated the second half, outscoring Western Kentucky 21-3 for a final score of 52-20.
Here are my biggest takeaways:
1) Through the first two games of the year, Tennessee is tied for first in the nation in forced turnovers (9) and first in the nation in interceptions (7). The Vols seven total forced turnovers in the Western Kentucky game is the most a Tennessee team has forced in a game since the Memphis State game in 1984. Regardless of the competition, this is a defense that struggled mightily against anyone and everyone last year and was likely the worst defense in school history. To perform the way they have says a lot about the new coaching staff.
2) The Vols have had a total of two penalties for 17 yards through two games. This also ties them for first in the nation with Arizona State. Again, mental toughness was a major problem with this team over the past several years.
3) Tennessee’s 97 points through two games ties the 1996 team, led by Peyton Manning, for the most points to open the season. It’s also 11 more points than the Vols offense from last season, which put five players in the NFL.
Now, don’t think I’m getting carried away in my optimism into thinking that Tennessee is back to relevancy. You just can’t deny the vast improvements this team is seeing with potentially an even less talented and a certainly less experienced roster.
Next up: Tennessee challenges a high-powered Oregon team, ranked 2nd in the country, and so I’m sure a lot of the weaknesses of this team are finally going to be exposed for what they are. I expected Tennessee to beat Austin Peay and Western Kentucky. I’m just impressed with how they won both games.
The Vols now travel to Oregon, followed by another road game against Florida, so we’ll get a better chance to see just how improved this Tennessee team really is. The Ducks, through two games, are averaging 62.5 points per game on 664.5 yards of offense. The Tennessee defense has played extremely well in its first two games but I think it’s safe to say that this will be the ultimate test.