Hilltopped on Ol’ Rocky Top
Tennessee’s LaDarrell McNeil brings down Western Kentucky running back Leon Allen (33) after Allen caught a screen pass on Saturday at Neyland. Tennessee linebacker AJ Johnson (left) looks to help McNeil bring down Allen. Tennessee picked up a 52-21 victory over the visiting Hilltoppers.
KNOXVILLE—Western Kentucky was pretty much dominating play early in the game Saturday, cruising along with a 3-0 lead. But all of a sudden Tennessee forced five turnovers in six plays and turned them into 31 points in a span of 4:23 on its way to a 52-20 victory at Neyland Stadium.
The first two turnovers were pick-sixes of 23 yards by Justin Coleman and 36 yards by true freshman Cameron Sutton coming with just one running play in between by the Hilltoppers.
WKU’s next three snaps were two fumbles (recovered by Dontavis Sapp and Max Arnold) and another interception, this one by Brent Brewer. The Vols got a 23-yard field goal from Michael Palardy and touchdown runs from running backs Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane on these possessions to lead by 31-3.
The Hilltoppers bounced back with a pair of touchdowns but Tennessee got its offense untracked in the final two periods to rack up its second victory of the young season. WKU is now 1-1.
However, fun time is officially over for the Vols who head to Oregon next week for a nationally televised battle with the second-ranked Ducks.
Both coaches said they had never seen anything like 5 turnovers in 6 plays. Tennessee’s Butch Jones remarked, “I’ve never ever been associated with anything like that. And it all started with special teams when we downed the punt at their 2.
“It was the most takeaways (7 total) for us since 1984,” he continued. “We were very opportunistic. Again, it’s another great lesson to our football team about preparing and then playing with great energy level and passion.”
Western’s Bobby Petrino said, “I don’t ever remember a game with turnovers back-to-back-to-back like that. It really dug us a hole. But I was encouraged by the way we drove the ball and scored in the second quarter and then got the blocked punt to get within 31-17 at the half.
“But their offense did a nice job on their first drive coming out of halftime,” he said. “In the second half they just took over and beat us up. They ran the ball when they wanted to and how they wanted to. And, offensively, we couldn’t get the ball in the endzone.”
After getting just 84 yards in the first half, Tennessee wound up with 382 total and with 240 coming on the ground. Lane led the way with 97 on 16 tries while Neal had 74 on 15 attempts with 2 touchdown runs of a yard and another from 7 yards out.
Quarterback Justin Worley completed only 3 of 9 for 35 yards in the first 2 quarters but was 8 of 10 for 107 and a TD after that. The ‘Toppers finished with 171 rushing and 222 in the air, completing 17 of 36.
Jones said, “Our kids were ready to play but we couldn’t get into a rhythm offensively in the first half. We drop a touchdown pass and all of a sudden it’s a blocked punt just like that. Those are mistakes that as we continue to progress, we can’t make.
“The offense in the second half was just execution. We didn’t change the plan…we went back and executed better.”
The Hilltoppers jumped in front early, taking the opening kickoff and using up 14 plays and 7:05 off the clock before settling for a 37-yard field goal by Garrett Schwettman.
- By Derwin Helton, Tribune Correspondent