It's hard to imagine being able to say you learned something about your football team based on a game where you are a 30-point favorite. Everyone assumes a win, and a big one at that.
But today, Lane Kiffin and his Tennessee Vols learned a lot about their team, and more specifically quarterback and team captain Jonathan Crompton. Crompton, a senior, has struggled through an underwhelming career, falling victim to what most people would describe as a sort of "performance anxiety."
Every Vol fan had to question whether it was possible for Crompton to turn things around, to put the past behind him and have a productive season. After his performance against Western Kentucky, going 21-28 for 233 yards with five TDs and two INTs, it's evident there's hope.
On a day where Tennessee had the Hilltoppers so outmanned that they probably could have run the ball 50 times and moved at will, Lane Kiffin felt it best to show his QB he was confident in him. On most plays, it was apparent that Crompton had a good feel for what to look for and how to react to it.
Perhaps Kiffin has done what others before him either couldn't or wouldn't, and that's take the burden off Crompton's shoulders and put it on his own. I say that because it looked to me like Crompton was told what to look for and exactly what to do when he saw it, and if that resulted in something bad, then the coaches would be responsible since that's their instruction.
Obviously, I'm not in the meetings and Kiffin hasn't said that, but I can't come up with any other explanation. Crompton was so "in charge," so calm and relaxed, and so sure of the decisions he was making. Sure, there are still kinks, but Crompton's solid play led the way for the Vols to get rolling.
As expected, Tennessee's defense stifled the Toppers. Western Kentucky had 83 total yards on offense, with about 60 of those coming against mostly reserves on one drive with the game in hand late.
Tennessee's defensive line provided constant pressure while the linebackers ate up anyone they came in contact with. The Vols' secondary rarely gave the offense an opening, playing physical at the line and playing the ball in the air better than they have in years.
The most eye opening aspect of the day, though, was the contributions of so many freshmen. When Kiffin arrived in Knoxville, he proclaimed that the freshmen would play a lot in his system, and he held true to that today.
Three freshmen scored touchdowns today. Bryce Brown scored the first TD of the season on a tough run, Marsalis Teague added a TD catch and David Oku added 2 rushing TDs of his own.
Many others contributed heavily, even without scoring. Nu'Keese Richardson was electrifying on punt returns after muffing the first one of the game, as well as getting some looks at WR and QB. Zach Rogers added a catch as well.
On defense, Montori Hughes, Janzen Jackson, Darren Myles, Jr. and Mike Edwards all got in on defense and made plays respectively. Jackson almost made an amazing diving interception early in the game, showing great athleticism and knack of breaking on the ball in the air.
Tennessee didn't punt all day. In the first quarter, a couple of turnovers ended otherwise promising drives, but after that it was all scoring. At the end of the first quarter, the score was an auspicious 0-0.
From the 2nd on, the offense would explode for 63 points, getting help from the defense who gave them a short field and momentum on several occasions.
All tolled, the Vols racked up 657 yards of total offense. As I said in the beginning, it's hard to imagine telling anything by this kind of game, but who could have imagined 657 yards after what we watched last season?
It was apparent today that Kiffin's team will be very aggressive, disciplined and physical. Is the talent there to compete with the elite teams in the conference? It's impossible to tell at this point.
But, I do believe you can use today as an indicator that this staff is going to get far more out of the players than the prior staff did last season, and have added a class of dynamic freshmen to that mix.
Nearly every player interviewed after the game today made a comment about how prepared they were for this game, and we all know the less players have to think the faster they move.
Vol fans can sleep well tonight knowing the players believe in these coaches. They believe they will prepare them for anything, and that they aren't on an island having to make decisions on the fly. The coaches have made the decision for them.
That's encouraging, not only because it will help them play faster, but because it will help eliminate fear. Fear of failure, fear of making mistakes and fear of losing are killers. You can't play scared.
Right now, Lane Kiffin and his boys don't look scared of anyone.