Sept. 5, 2009
BY DREW EDWARDS
Tennessee players and coaches gathered near the 45-yard line, forming a giant circle around an animated Lane Kiffin. Heads began to nod. Players began to jump up and down.
The gathering didn't take place before kickoff. It didn't happen after the Vols' first drive ended in a turnover. It didn't even happen during the first half.
"He called us up to let us know the game's not over yet," he said. "You've got to continue fighting no matter what the score is. No matter what's happening, you've got to continue to put the hammer down. You have to keep fighting."
Keeping the fight wasn't a problem up by 35 points. Or tied 0-0 in the first quarter.
A slow start to Kiffin's first game as head coach exploded in the final three quarters of a 63-7 win in Neyland Stadium on Saturday.
Senior Jonathan Crompton's third pass of the season was tipped and picked off less than four minutes into the game. But that play was merely a speed bump.
"Things happen. It's just how you respond to it," said Crompton, who finished the day 21-of-28 passing for 233 yards and a career-high five touchdowns. "It was a good thing seeing our team come back. Things happen but we did a good job coming back."
UT's comeback didn't start until the second quarter, but it happened in a flash.
Bryce Brown capped a 10-play drive with a 2-yard touchdown run to make the score 7-0.
Quintin Hancock caught the next one from 9 yards for a 21-0 lead. Brandown Warren then hauled in a 4-yard touchdown catch that made the score 28-0 at halftime.
For a team coming off an emotionally draining 5-7 season in 2008, Saturday was a major step in showing they can overcome adversity.
"We didn't know how we would respond to some things," said senior tailback Montario Hardesty, who rushed for 160 yards on 18 carries. "I think us not scoring on offense and then battling back it pretty much showed the heart of our team. We're trying to set the tone for how we're going to be this season."
That tone involved a lot of yards.
The Vols (1-0) racked up 380 rushing yards, their highest total since a 406-yard rushing performance against Vanderbilt in 1994. And UT's 63 points dwarfed its biggest output last season (35 points against UAB). Ditto for its 657 yards of total offense.
As impressive as the offense was, UT's defense had a stellar day of its own. Western Kentucky - making its debut as a full member of the NCAA's Football Bowl Subdivision -- finished with just 83 yards of total offense and committed three turnovers.
The Hilltoppers (0-1) had just one first-half first down, and that came by virtue of a Tennessee penalty. Only 5:58 remained in the third quarter when they earned a new set of downs on their own.
"They only got seven points," cornerback Marsalous Johnson said. "It was supposed to have been zero, but we still played a great game. We're just glad to see our offense put up 63 points. Sixty-three points and seven points, that shows that both the offense and the defense played pretty good."
Saturday's win - while impressive - deserves a grain of salt. The Vols host UCLA next week, and defensive tackle Wes Brown knows there's plenty of work left to do.
"We want to build on today," he said. "Next week's going to be a tough opponent. They've got some great players. It's going to be a challenge for us defensively to come back and put up a strong performance next week."