KNOXVILLE — Before he even had been asked to describe the game-altering events of the final five minutes of the first quarter, Butch Jones opened his postgame news conference by showing just how well he knows the sacred traditions of University of Tennessee football.
Referring to the avalanche of points the Volunteers buried Western Kentucky under during a span of the final four minutes of the first quarter and opening 22 seconds of the second, Jones recited from memory one of Gen. Robert Neyland's seven game maxims.
"Play for and make the breaks, and when one comes your way, score," Jones said with a grin. "That's the second of General Neyland's maxims, and it got us going today.
"I've never ever been associated with anything like that."
After falling behind on an early Western Kentucky field goal, the Vols turned momentum on a punt, when junior Justin Coleman downed Michael Palardy's kick at the 1. Four plays later, Coleman snatched a deflected pass out of the air and returned it 23 yards for the go-ahead touchdown.
That was the first of five turnovers created by UT in the next six Hilltoppers snaps, staking the Vols to a commanding 31-3 lead.
Coming into Saturday's game, it was believed that WKU would provide enough of a test to determine just how many warts UT still had in its program before getting into the meat of this season's schedule. And aside from the early turnover frenzy that pretty well put the game away, the Hilltoppers outplayed UT for the first half, 236-84 in total yards.
With a blocked punt allowed, an offense that was stagnant for the first two quarters and a defense that appears still to have holes in the secondary and a tough time stopping the run at times, there's certainly enough for the entire Vols staff to go to work on.
But there were also several clear signs that this isn't like the UT team that lacked heart and fight last year.
Jones challenged the offense at halftime, and the unit responded by taking the second-half kickoff and driving 59 yards in just five plays before scoring, then following up with an eight-play, 75-yard TD drive.
"We did some good things in the first half to get the lead, but we also made enough mistakes to get the kids' attention," Jones said. "Halftime was a teaching moment and a chance to see how well we handle some adversity.
"Western Kentucky is a fine football team, and I thought we came out and established the line of scrimmage in the second half."
Leaning on a veteran offensive line that needs to be the strength of the team while an inexperienced quarterback and receivers learn on the job, the Vols got 156 rushing yards on 30 second-half carries.
And the defense also stiffened, holding the Hilltoppers to a field goal in the second half and ending another scoring threat when Brian Randolph snatched an interception in the end zone, the Vols' fifth pickoff of the day and seventh overall turnover, the most caused by a UT defense since 1984.
"It was good to see what type of resiliency our kids have. I needed to see that because we're about to get tested a lot," Jones said, noting the team is about to truly find out about its identity with a road trip to Oregon next week.
In that matchup, for the Vols to stay with one of the top teams in the nation, Jones will need his team to fulfill more than just one of Gen. Neyland's maxims.
"We had some big splash plays today," Jones concluded. "Some momentum-shifting plays. And we'll need more of those. The earliest I got home last week, and you can ask my wife, was 11:30. We work too hard maybe. But I'll enjoy this one now and then I'll start watching film on Oregon tonight."
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293.
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...