Western Kentucky could not overcome five turnovers (on six plays) in the first quarter and lost at Tennessee Saturday.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WDRB) – The game began the way a Bobby Petrino-coached game is supposed to begin – according to his crisp offensive script.
Western Kentucky won the toss. The Hilltoppers marched 55 yards against the Tennessee defense. They converted a pair of third-and-longs. They showed poise and creativity. They kicked a 37-yard field goal. They energized the 2,000 or so WKU fans sitting in the 10 rows behind their bench at Neyland Stadium.
They led, 3-0, and then stuffed the Volunteers on five plays the first time Tennessee had the ball. The folks at ESPN (Mark May, Todd McShay) and in the Kentucky media (blush) who had predicted a Hilltoppers' upset had reason to pound the news out on Twitter.
Don't ask. You won't believe it. You'll ask to check the video. You still won't believe it. Something happened that was so bizarre that I wonder if it had ever happened in a college football game:
Western Kentucky turned the ball over five times in six snaps.
Touchdown. Touchdown. Field goal. Touchdown. Touchdown.
Five turnovers in 4:07. It was as if the Hilltoppers were playing five against 15.
Western Kentucky went from a 3-0 lead to a 31-3 hole.
That's how Western lost a game that the Hilltoppers certainly could have won. The final score was 52-—20. Although Western rallied to score the final 14 points of the first half, the turnovers were more than the San Francisco 49ers could have overcome, even though WKU outgained the Vols by 11 yards.
They cut the margin to 31-17 by halftime, but that was that. Especially after the Toppers tossed in two more interceptions.
(For the record, Florida forced Florida State into seven turnovers on consecutive possessions on Oct. 7, 1972. That's nice work. But, sorry, that's not five turnovers in six snaps.)
FUMBLIN, BUMBLIN, STUMBLIN -- The crowd in the video room to review the WKU blunders will be jumbo-sized this week. This was an equal-opportunity misfire.
Quarterback Brandon Doughty threw all five interceptions, but he had plenty of help. Taywan Taylor, the freshman from Pleasure Ridge Park, should have caught the first pass that was intercepted but the ball bounced off his shoulder pads into the hands of UT's Justin Coleman.
The second pick was either a bad throw or a terribly run pass route.
Credit Keshawn Simpson with the first fumble and Antonio Andrews with the second. After that, it was simply ugly.
DAMARCUS SMITH SIGHTING -- Former Seneca star Damarcus Smith finally made his debut as the WKU quarterback. Petrino subbed Smith for Doughty midway through the fourth quarter after his starter threw his fifth interception.
Smith, a redshirt freshman, failed to complete his first two passing attempts. He did run 15 yards for a first down.
BIG, BRAWNY BULLIES – Tennessee believes it can run the football. On anybody. The offensive line is one area that new coach Butch Jones did not have to repair.
He inherited left tackle Antonio Richardson, a mammoth junior from Nashville who is considered one of the best blockers in the SEC. Two other Tennessee offensive linemen were second-team pre-season picks by SEC coaches.
The Vols had a tremendous size advantage across the front against the Hilltoppers. The average weight of UT's front five on offense: 312 pounds. Average weight of WKU's front four on defense: 267.
The Western front held up well. The Volunteers were not able to dominate the game with handoff after handoff.
Of course, after all those turnovers, they didn't have to.
TENNESSEE TURNSTILES – From 1996-through-2008, Tennessee averaged at least 100,000 fans per game. By 2000, the Vols pushed their per game average to 107,595. They were the talk of the Southeastern Conference.
Michigan (109,901) and Penn State (106,572) are the only FBS programs with larger schools with larger facilities than Neyland Stadium.
Then they stopped winning the way the Volunteers won in the Nineties. And they shifted from Phil Fulmer to Lane Kiffin (don't say his name in this town) to Derek Dooley.
By 2012, the per game averaged plunged to 89,965.
Can Butch Jones bring another 10,000-to-15,000 back to Rocky Top?
That's the plan. But he'll need time. Tennessee drew 97,169 for its season opener against Austin Peay last week. The fever subsided. The crowd for the WKU game was announced at 86,783 despite spectacular weather in the Knoxville area.
Now the Vols depart for what figures to be back-to-back losses – Oregon and Florida before they return for three straight home games. With Georgia, South Carolina, Auburn and Vanderbilt on the home schedule, the season average is certain to increase although Tennessee looked like a team that will be fortunate to split its eight SEC games.
UP NEXT – Another road game awaits Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers visit Mobile to play South Alabama Sept. 21. The game is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. (EDT) and will be televised by ESPN3.com. Bobby Petrino will finally make his debut in Bowling Green Sept. 21 against Morgan State.