A lot of really good things happened Saturday against Western Kentucky. A lot of really bad things happened Saturday against Western Kentucky. This is where we try to sort it all out.
- Play for and make the breaks, and when one comes your way -- SCORE. The General is usually right. The team that made the fewest mistakes won, and Tennessee made the breaks. How much of it was Tennessee making the breaks and how much was Western Kentucky making mistakes is certainly up for debate (and on the last six turnovers, there was a bit of both), but the Vols forced seven turnovers, including five in the space of six plays, which is definitely a record. The good kind of record. And off those first five turnovers, Tennessee scored five times: four touchdowns and a field goal. To say nothing of making them, there's something to be said for how you respond to the breaks, both good and bad, and Tennessee responded well.
- Turning up the heat in the second half. Despite getting none of the breaks in the first half, Western Kentucky was still very much in the game at halftime. They had racked up 228 yards in the first half, while Tennessee had nothing but five scores off turnovers and four punts (three of the three-and-out variety). The Hilltoppers were dominating the ball movement game, and down just 31-17, they had legitimate hopes of carrying that to the scoreboard in the second half. In the second half, WKU had just 137 yards and three points. After opening 6/8 on third downs, they were just 2/7 the rest of the way. Tennessee, on the other hand? After no drives of more than five plays or 22 yards in the opening half, the Vols had no drives of fewer than 5 plays or 38 yards in the second half. Three led to touchdowns, and a fourth led to running out the clock inside the Hilltoppers' five. This is especially refreshing after the last three years seemingly consisting of nothing but second half collapses. We of course remember getting destroyed against good teams after being close at halftime, but the Vols were not immune against lesser teams. They blew a 23-7 halftime lead in an overtime win over UAB and a 21-7 halftime lead in an overtime loss to Missouri. Taking charge in the second half against WKU is new. And good.
- Red zone defense. Western Kentucky visited the red zone six times. They scored two touchdown, two field goals, and threw two interceptions. There is plenty of room to complain about allowing the Hilltoppers to march down the field with such ease, but Tennessee made plays when the spaces got tighter, which is a genuinely useful skill. Not very many touchdowns beats a lot of field goals.
- Defensive line push. Of WKU's first thirteen carries, five were stopped behind the line of scrimmage. That's almost 40%. The Hilltoppers were able to run with more effectiveness after going behind by 28 points, but that's to be expected and is probably to be blamed more on strategy than execution. But early in the game, the Vols defensive line was getting fantastic push in the run game.
- Justin Worley. In the first half, Worley managed to complete just three passes, and one was a circus catch by a wide-open Marquez North after a terrible throw. He was a step behind on every timing throw. He missed wide open receivers. His arm is not SEC-caliber. Even though he completed a couple deep balls, they consistently hung in the air for far too long to succeed against a speedy secondary. To his credit, he was able to get in rhythm on the short throws in the second half, which led to Tennessee's ability to move the ball. But he still made a horrible decision under pressure that led to an interception, and he still just doesn't have the arm strength for a vertical passing game. If he can throw timing routes like he did in the second half and not like he did in the first half, he may be enough of a game-manager to keep the job while the freshmen learn the ropes. But without any threat of a long pass, defenses will be able to compress vertically to attack the run game and the short-passing game. And if he doesn't make better decisions under pressure, it will lead to turnovers at inopportune times (which is to say, at any times).
- Protect our kicker. To be fair to the punt protection unit, the fault here may lie partially on Michael Palardy, who seemed very slow in getting his kicks away (although quite effective when he did). But after Tennessee's defense made a stand to keep the score 31-10 right before half, the Vols' special teams gave it right back with a blocked punt inside their own twenty. Those are the plays that get you beat.
- Third down defense. Like Worley, this was affected by the second positive trend (that is, it improved in the second half). But WKU opened 6/8 on third downs. Tennessee was winning on standard downs and not getting off the field. That has to improve if the Vols want to be competitive against the better teams on the schedule.
- DIscipline. It wasn't zero penalties, but the degree of difficulty went up when Austin Peay left the opposing sideline. The Vols were flagged just three times, and the first was an extremely borderline roughing the passer after a false start was blown belatedly dead. That's still pretty good.
- Deanthonie Summerhill. He only got carries when the game was out of reach, but the man took the #3 running back position last week and seems to have kept it this week with 40 yards on nine carries.