Even after Tennessee forced Western Kentucky into a mistake-marred stretch that crushed any upset hopes, the Volunteers struggled to deliver the kill shot.
That's because they couldn't quit killing themselves.
The Vols finally put away Bobby Petrino's Hilltoppers in the third quarter on their way to a 52-20 win. But every time Tennessee would take a couple steps forward, a step back followed.
A resurgent UT defense forced seven turnovers that yielded 38 points, but it was also gashed too often. Justin Worley completed 11 of 19 passes for 142 yards but also struggled with his accuracy. Finally, an offensive line lauded as the team's strength took an entire half to get in rhythm before dominating.
In the end, it was another step in the right direction for the green-and-growing Vols, especially considering several national experts put UT on upset alert. With trips to Oregon and Florida looming, though, good won't be good enough.
There may have been too many mistakes to get too excited, but UT's coach, a hoarse Butch Jones, certainly seemed satisfied in his postgame radio show.
We have a lot of work to do, but I'll tell you it's great to go back and work on the things we need to. We needed a game like this with the emotions and adversity. I'll tell you, I'm very proud of our players. I liked the way our players responded in the second half.
It should have been over before then. After WKU kicked a field goal on its opening drive and forced a Tennessee punt, the Vols defense took over, delivering a stretch for the ages. In the next six Hilltoppers snaps, UT forced five turnovers.
The first two were pick-sixes—a 23-yarder from Justin Coleman and a 36-yarder by Cameron Sutton. The Vols scored after all five turnovers, and before the second chorus of "Rocky Top" could crank up, Tennessee led 31-3.
"I don't remember that many interceptions and that many turnovers back-to-back-to-back-to-back," Petrino said after the game. "It really dug us a hole."
Despite the turnovers, WKU whittled the lead to 31-17 at halftime. Tennessee played too soft immediately following the rash of turnovers, allowing an 80-yard touchdown drive.
Too often, the Vols busted coverage, especially on running backs bleeding out of the backfield. WKU completed four first-half passes to its running backs for 77 yards. UT also allowed 171 rushing yards on a 5.0 average for the game, and the Hilltoppers completed passes underneath through the entire first half.
Several of those gash plays will go for touchdowns against De'Anthony Thomas, Thomas Tyner and the Ducks.
The bottom line is the Vols made huge plays, but they gave up too many big ones, too. If sophomore safety Brian Randolph doesn't grab two interceptions in the end zone, it's a different football game.
At the close of the first half, the Vols made their biggest blunder: They got too conservative trying to salt away the half, got a punt blocked and allowed a momentum-swinging touchdown 23 seconds before halftime.
As for Worley, the junior still isn't playing at a level that can win games against quality teams. Tennessee is in trouble if the Worley who showed up Saturday is the team's best option.
He has to get better. In a hurry.
Worley was 3-of-9 for 33 yards in a first half where the Vols rolled up just 84 offensive yards total. Though he rallied to command the offense much better after halftime, he threw an ill-advised interception on third down with the Vols in field-goal range rather than just throwing it away.
Worley admitted that "in hindsight, I probably should have just thrown the ball out of bounds," but critical mistakes such as those lead to losses.
Despite the warts, the win was decisive. The defense gave up just three points, and the offense controlled the tempo in sustaining drives on its way to 21 points and 298 yards after the break. Adjustments were made; players responded.
Any win for a team that hasn't been to a bowl game in two years is a welcome one, but the Vols need more consistency in a lot of places, or the upcoming stretch of football is going to be a long one.
All quotes were obtained from the Vol Network's postgame radio show or from postgame quote transcripts.
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