WESTERN KENTUCKY (1-0) AT TENNESSEE (1-0)
12:21 p.m. * Neyland Stadium, Knoxville, Tenn. * WDSI/106.5 FM
The last time Tennessee faced an offense orchestrated by Bobby Petrino, it watched a highlight reel of big plays lead to a 42-point destruction in 2011. While Petrino’s first Western Kentucky offense lacks the same talent level as the coach’s best Arkansas teams, the concepts remain the same, and they showed that last week in the Hilltoppers’ defeat of Kentucky. In his first start, quarterback Brendan Doughty was 27-of-34 passing for 271 yards, and Western Kentucky ran for 216 yards, too, in a 487-yard performance.
One of the best offensive minds in the game, Petrino is excellent at scripting the first drives of games, identifying favorable matchups, finding, exploiting and attacking defense’s weak spots and maintaining balance offensively. Some potential targets in orange: freshman cornerback Cam Sutton and linebacker A.J. Johnson, who’s only weakness may be his coverage ability. A Tennessee defense hardly tested last week expects a big one today.
Vols defensive coordinator John Jancek’s message to his secondary this week: “Put your eyes where they belong, play with your fundamentals and play hard.”
One to watch
Would the real A.J. please stand up?
The initials apply to both Tennessee’s Johnson and Western Kentucky’s Andrew Jackson, the 6-foot-1, 257-pound senior who led the ‘Toppers with 122 tackles last season and delivered a Jadeveon Clowney-like shot on Kentucky tailback Jonathan George last week to blow up a third-and-1 play. The Vols’ offense is aware of both Jackson and safety Jonathan Dowling, a transfer from Florida. Tennessee coach Butch Jones believes both players have NFL talent.
In practice this week, Jones has told his A.J. he gets to share the field this week with a first-round NFL draft pick in Jackson and that “You’re just a practice-squad player.” Jones joked his oldest son, Alex, wanted Jackson’s autograph. Will the mid-week motivational ploys result in a big game for Tennessee’s defensive leader?
In the end
Though road trips to Oregon and Florida await Tennessee the next two weeks, the Vols have their full attention on Western Kentucky. They respect the Hilltoppers and the threat they pose, and Tennessee truly expects a tough game today. The Vols’ biggest advantage, as it will be many times this season, is their offensive line, which should be able to control the line of scrimmage against a Western Kentucky front that allowed Kentucky to run for 216 yards and average 6.8 yards per carry, including big runs of 49, 50 and 33 yards.
The key to the game, though, may be Tennessee’s defensive front, particularly if it can contain ‘Topper tailback Antonio Andrews (1,728 rushing yards in 2012) and affect Doughty enough to help the defensive backs in coverage. The Vols were disciplined and efficient last week, and they’ll need similar production in that area to avoid a dicey afternoon against Petrino and his confident bunch.
Prediction: Tennessee 34, Western Kentucky 27
KNOXVILLE — It looked so easy most of the time.
Simple handoffs turned into touchdown runs. A new quarterback completed some easy passes against forgiving coverage. The core of the defensive cast stayed backstage after the first act.
How much did Tennessee's football team really learn about itself in the season-opening romp against Austin Peay?
Regardless of the answer to that question, the Volunteers expect to learn much more in a tricky game against Western Kentucky today.
"The way our coaching staff sees its and the way we see it when we watch the film, they're a really good and talented ball team," Tennessee redshirt freshman defensive end LaTroy Lewis said this week. "We're preparing and going into this week just like it was an Oregon or a Florida or a Georgia. Same thing.
"Back in the summer, we were hearing some things, so we said, 'Let's go see for ourselves,' looked at the film and we saw they had some good players. To their credit, they do. Watching them against Kentucky, they play well, and we're excited to play against them."
Offensively against Austin Peay in the opener, Tennessee showed very little. Some defensive starters played around 20 snaps, as the Vols played their second team during the entire second half. The coaching staff wanted to develop depth, but it also hid some of Tennessee's developing identity.
Western Kentucky, directed by former Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino, hopes to expose that identity and claim its second SEC scalp after handling Kentucky without much difficulty last week.
The Hilltoppers were a trendy upset pick for some national analysts this week, and though they were blasted 63-7 on their last visit to Knoxville in 2009 -- Lane Kiffin's coaching debut for the Vols -- they're a confident group.
"It's definitely come a long way since 2009 when we played them," WKU fifth-year senior linebacker Chuck Franks said. "That was actually my first game. A lot better players in here now. We've had great coaches along the way to help build the program to where it is now.
"Now all we've got to do is we've just got to go down there and play ball. We know we can play with these guys. We've just got to go down there and leave it all on the field."
The Toppers went 7-5 each of the past two seasons after that 0-12 year in 2009. They played Alabama last season and LSU in 2011 when both the Crimson Tide and Tigers were ranked No. 1.
When Willie Taggart left Bowling Green for South Florida after last season, it paved the way for Western Kentucky to take a chance on Petrino, a coach many big programs, including four in the SEC, stayed away from because of the baggage created at the end of his Arkansas tenure. Petrino went 41-9 in four seasons at Louisville and 34-17 at Arkansas, where he was 21-5 his final two seasons in 2010 and 2011.
Now he takes over a veteran team with some really good players.
"They have swagger, they have confidence and they believe they can play with anyone and everyone in the country," first-year Vols coach Butch Jones said. "I think that's been evidenced by their body of work over a period of time."
There's not much evidence to go on with Jones' first Tennessee team, particularly due to the level of competition last week. The Vols managed a penalty-free game, won the turnover battle and preserved a shutout. But plenty of unknowns remain.
"We learned that we've got a long way to go in a lot of areas," defensive coordinator John Jancek said. "We have to develop depth. Those guys have got to come along. There can't be a drastic dropoff when we sub guys in and out.
"We've got to become more consistent both with our first group and our twos, so that's going to be the process that we have to endure moving forward."
Tennessee's offense certainly gained some confidence is executing a new system without any major glitches, but the Vols still have not had the reliability of some players tested or been forced to come through in a critical moment.
"You'll see our offense continue to expand," Jones said. "We wanted to execute. We thought it was critical with when you put in a new offense, is being able to execute. When you execute, it gains confidence. When you have confidence, then you can continue to expand your offensive sets and your formations and your personnel groupings."
The Vols hope a 2-0 start heading into the season's most brutal stretch is part of that expansion.
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...