KNOXVILLE — To say Tennessee’s offense started out slowly Saturday against the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers is an understatement.
With zero third-down conversions and only 49 yards rushing and 35 yards through the air in the first half of the eventual 52-20 win, the Volunteers struggled to find a rhythm.
“I wouldn’t say I was struggling,” quarterback Justin Worley said later. “We had a couple drops that hurt [and] couldn’t really get in a rhythm based on the number of plays we had. I think we only had nine or so plays in the first quarter, so not being able to get in a rhythm never helps, but I don’t feel like I was struggling.”
First-year coach Butch Jones’ message to the players at halftime was clear.
“Coach said just keep your foot on the pedal, and just keep going,” said left tackle Antonio “Tiny” Richardson. “He said I’m going to put you guys in [good] situations. They play a lot of man coverage, so we’re going to try to expose them in the secondary. They only had like two in the box, so we exposed them in the run game, too.”
The Vols returned from halftime with a 59-yard touchdown drive sparked by a 37-yard pass from Worley to sophomore receiver Johnathon Johnson and capped by a 1-yard run by Raijon Neal.
In the second half, the Vols improved from their 0-of-5 third-down conversion rate to 4-of-5.
“Going into halftime you make adjustments on what you’re seeing,” Worley said, “and I think [offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian] did a great job at taking what the defense was giving us and really coming up with a good second-half game plan.”
The Vols’ third-quarter surge continued with a 75-yard touchdown drive that started with a 20-yard run by receiver Pig Howard. Worley completed only three passes out of nine attempts in the first half, but he was 6-of-8 in the third quarter before an interception.
While the passing game improved, so did the ground game. Neal and fellow tailback Marlin Lane ran for a combined 121 yards and two touchdowns after halftime.
“I think we got into a rhythm,” Neal said. “We put some drives together, giving the O-line a little more rhythm and feel for the guys.”
The Hilltoppers tested the Vols, but second half-adjustments to the offensive line helped the Vols bounce back from their rough start.
“They were bringing a lot of pressures,” Richardson said. “That’s why it was hard to get the run game going at first, but I feel like the second half we were able to adjust.”
“Coach [Bajakian] did a good job at putting us into good situations.”
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