KNOXVILLE, Tenn.—It took a little while for the humility to get going.
After one quarter, both teams were scoreless. Three quarters later, it was tough to tell that it had ever even been a game, as Tennessee waltzed through both team's season-opener with a 63-7 whooping of WKU.
It was a thorough beating of the Toppers, who were outgained in total yardage 657-83. Afterward, coach David Elson had no easy way to say how his team played.
"I think we played one quarter of decent football, then I think for the next three quarters, we just got physically dominated," he said. "That's very disappointing, but we'll have to look at the film, figure out exactly what it was that was causing us to be so completely inept on both sides of the ball, learn from it and get ready for a Big East opponent (South Florida). We proved today we can't play with the SEC."
Offensively, it was as if WKU was stuck in mud. In the first quarter, true freshman cornerback Jamal Forrest made an interception, only to see the Toppers go three and out. On the next Tennessee possession, senior running back Montario Hardesty turned the ball over on a fumble, but WKU could muster just one first down on a penalty.
"Offensively, we've gotta come out and get something going," senior quarterback Brandon Smith said. "We didn't do that. The first half, we were leaving the defense out there for long periods of time and we're not helping them out any. We have to get something going."
It didn't take long for the defense to wear down. The Volunteers tacked on three touchdowns in less than five minutes from the 13:41 mark of the first quarter. In between, sophomore running back Bobby Rainey fumbled on the first play of WKU's possession after the first touchdown followed by another three and out after the second touchdown.
"I don't know what happened, if we lost our momentum, or what," junior linebacker Thomas Majors said. "But we just got dominated."
The Toppers got nothing going until the 4:38 mark of the third quarter, as Rainey ran 19 yards on a draw up the middle to make the score 35-7.
The thunderstorm of Volunteer touchdowns continued in the fourth quarter, with four more.
Tennessee passed well, but ran at will with 380 yards rushing and two runners, Hardesty and true freshman Bryce Brown, topping 100 yards apiece. The Volunteers amassed 34 first downs compared to six by WKU.
If new coach Lane Kiffin was looking for a statement, he certainly made one, though he looked to run up even more points on a couple of occasions.
At the end of the first half and Tennessee already up 28-0, Kiffin burned two timeouts and was thwarted only by a 44-yard punt by senior Jeremy Moore. Then on the Vols' first possession of the second half, Kiffin neglected to punt on fourth down and four yards at his own 46-yard line. A pass by senior quarterback Jonathan Crompton fell incomplete, but it wasn't taken well on the WKU sideline.
"We took it as an insult, really," Majors said. "Just the simple fact that we just moved to the Sun Belt and they're SEC, it didn't surprise me at all that they would try something like that. They probably had the mentality of , 'hey, we're gonna beat these cats and get ready for the next game.'"
But aside from that stand, the Toppers showed no other resistance from there out.
It also might be a troubling sign that three of WKU's top four tacklers were in the secondary, led by senior Jihad Morris, with ten tackles.
"Blockers were getting to the second level pretty quick," Majors said. "We haven't watched film yet, don't really know what happened up front or what was going on, but all we can do is watch film, learn from it and practice on not making the same mistake."
WKU's only weapon on the day was Moore, who on nine punts, collected an average of 44.8 yards, with a long of 54 yards. With another BCS opponent next week in the Big East's South Florida, Moore can't be the biggest weapon.
If there's one other positive, according to Smith, it's that the Toppers still fought til the end, as hard as it was to tell.
"That's the sign of a good team is when something like this happens to a team, we're getting whipped like we were and everyone is still playing hard," Smith said. "No one's pointing fingers, the team stays together and that's a good sign. Your team doesn't fall apart, you stay close and we've got a close team. That was encouraging."
There's a lot to be done in just a week's time to recover, but the lowliness of this showing will sting for a while.
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