Posted: 8:43 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013
By Will Shelton
We're a passionate, slightly crazy, often irrational bunch. So you'll probably nod your head when I say I heard some form of all of those things listed above at Neyland Stadium on Saturday, and you'll probably nod because you said a few of them yourself.
There's nothing rational about what happened in Western Kentucky's five turnovers in six offensive snaps bonanza. It's similar to the Vols having zero penalties last week: sure to be a leading conversation point among the faithful, certainly impressive, but of somewhat limited value going forward. Granted, the Vols committed just two penalties today and certainly appear more disciplined - bonus points to the offensive line's statuesque performance and Justin Worley for going deep on WKU's offsides penalty - but lack of penalties don't always lead to greatness. Alabama was 7th best in the nation in penalty yards per game last season, sure, but 11-win Florida and Oregon were 114th and 117th, respectively.
In the same way, Tennessee did create most of Western Kentucky's turnovers - only the first one was sort of a fluke play in my opinion - and the Vols have now picked up half as many turnovers in two games as they had in all of 2012. But the Vols aren't going to see seven turnovers again this year, certainly not five in six plays (let alone four in four plays, which has never happened before) and I'm not sure anyone has kept this stat, but I'd wager an average starting field position of our own 45 yard line might be a school record.
So the main takeaway from this game is weirdness, which was followed by a brief spell of, "Oh no we're really terrible!" and then an entire half of, "Alright, maybe we're okay." In the game that was supposed to teach us more than any of the others we'll play this month, the weirdness made lessons hard to see. But between the overreactions on both ends of the spectrum, at least a few truths about this Tennessee team are trying to emerge. Let's look at a few overreactions from Saturday and the truth that lies a little closer to center:
"We would've lost without all those turnovers!"
First, no. The Vols got 31 during the weirdness but won by 32 and ended the game two yards short of 39 (side note: I was in Fayetteville two years ago when Petrino handed us the worst loss of my lifetime, and it was terrible, so I wouldn't have felt bad about sticking another one in there at all. But we'll take 52.). Second, turnovers are very much part of the game, and credit a young (and recovering in the case of Brian Randolph) secondary for making so many plays.
But the second half made all of us feel better, both because Tennessee faced at least some level of adversity - as much as you can face with a two touchdown lead at halftime - and responded with good football. UT's three scoring drives to put the game away in the second half: 5 plays 59 yards, 8 plays 75 yards, 8 plays 80 yards. No flukes there, only domination led by a ground game that finished with 240 yards on 45 carries for 5.3 per. Tennessee's identity last week was a dominant ground game, and today was no different when we needed points most. It was a little choppy early, but the Vols bounced back, dare we say made halftime adjustments, and finished the day looking good the way we thought they would.
"Justin Worley is terrible!"
I think Tennessee fans are convinced our quarterback has to either be Peyton Manning or Evil Crompton. There is no middle ground. If he's not a Heisman candidate, he sucks. Casey Clausen was terrible. Erik Ainge was terrible. Crompton was terrible until the Georgia game. Matt Simms was terrible. Tyler Bray plays with the arm of a god and the brain of a child in the backyard, so he's terrible too.
Look friends, relax. Anytime I hear people complaining about how bad our offense is - 382 yards on just 64 plays today, by the way - I want to remind everyone that the Clawfense wasn't that long ago. You've seen terrible and you've seen it recently, at quarterback and in general. Worley isn't that, at least not given the sample size we have thus far. Let's find a different word.
I'm fine with "limited" or, even better, "inexperienced". This kid doesn't have to be a hero. By the way, Worley in the second half: 8 of 10, 107 yards, a touchdown and a bad decision on an end zone interception. That came on third down, but so did his touchdown to Brendan Downs and the five-wide strike to Josh Smith on 3rd and 4 at the 19 with the Vols leading 38-20 and the outcome still in doubt. After struggling on third down in the first half, he rebounded fairly well...and third down is one of the few times we know we're going to need him to be big.
Worley doesn't appear capable of winning games for us, but we're not asking him to. Let's give him a few more snaps before we decide he's terrible and we need to play the guys who, you know, aren't capable of beating him out in practice.
"The defense is the same as last year!"
Western Kentucky got 393 yards in 70 plays. But again, you've seen terrible recently: the 2012 defense gave up less than 393 yards only twice (Georgia State, Akron).
Some of this conversation will depend on how much you believe in Bobby Petrino, who again called a game that took advantage of mismatches that hurt Tennessee's defense at times. The Hilltoppers were forced into third downs 15 times but converted 8 of them, and that's too many. Among those eight: 3rd and 13 on the opening drive, 3rd and 9 on WKU's first touchdown drive, 3rd and 14 on the first drive of the second half. That is, of course, too many, and this is a defense that needs to get off the field whenever it can despite seven turnovers today.
However, after the joy of the first quarter and the frustration of the end of the first half, the defense played a pretty good ballgame in the second half. WKU got three points, and even better, Tennessee turned the Hilltoppers away in the red zone a bunch throughout the game: in six red zone appearances, Western Kentucky got two touchdowns, two field goals, and threw two interceptions.
We've mentioned this before, and it's a great and critical stat: last year the Vols gave up points in the red zone 91.4% of the time. There was no bending, only breaking. But this same coaching staff at Cincinnati gave up points in the red zone just 70.0% of the time, 12th best nationally. And even better, last year the Bearcats gave up just 17 touchdowns in 40 red zone visits, one of only 19 teams in college football that gave up more field goals than touchdowns in the red zone.
Tennessee needs to get off the field, and we had some issues on third down against WKU. But the Vols also need to bend but not break, give up three and not six, and force big turnovers. And we've seen a bunch of that as well. In two games the Vols have allowed eight red zone trips, and only given up two touchdowns. That's a very good sign regardless of competition.
Look, this was a win every bit as important as we thought it was coming in, and should be celebrated as such. If you're feeling more bad than good after a 32 point win over a bowl eligible team with an elite playcaller, you should try enjoying life more. The Vols have some clear issues and are still growing. But today wasn't nearly as bad as some are making it out to be, and no matter how bad next week could get, there are signs of life here that could carry us forward as this team continues to grow this season. Butch Jones is 2-0 and we're moving in the right direction. We are in no way there yet and we've got miles to go. But today was an important step. Let's enjoy it.