KNOXVILLE — One brief stretch of Saturday was a party for Tennessee's defense.
All that was missing was the cake and ice cream.
The opportunistic Volunteers forced five of their seven turnovers in a wild six-play stretch in the first half to turn what looked like would be a long afternoon into a rather easy 52-20 win against Western Kentucky with 86,783 on hand on a sunny day at Neyland Stadium.
"That was very special," said safety Brian Randolph, who intercepted two passes in the turnoverpalooza.
"We work very hard, we try to be up-tempo every practice and have a lot of energy, and it just carried over to today's game."
It was the Vols' first seven-turnover performance in nearly 30 years, the last coming against Memphis State in November of 1984. Tennessee intercepted five passes for the first time since 1999, returned two for touchdowns and recovered two fumbles. During a disastrous 2012 season defensively, the Vols managed just 17 takeaways.
Through two games in 2013, they have nine.
"Never been associated with anything like that," first-year Tennessee coach Butch Jones said.
"It's up to the coaches to put our players in the best possible situations, and it's up to them to execute, and they executed. We made the plays. We didn't drop the football. We finished the deal, and that was great to see.
"I thought we had a great game plan, but our players, they're the ones, they executed it."
The Hilltoppers, led by former Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino, marched down the field on the opening possession, settled for a field goal and forced Tennessee to punt on its first series.
That's when the turnover spree started.
A ball that deflected high into the air off Western Kentucky receiver Taywan Taylor's shiny chrome helmet fell right into Justin Coleman's hands, and he raced 23 yards for a touchdown.
After the only turnover-free play in the decisive stretch -- a 3-yard Leon Allen run -- freshman Cam Sutton read 'Toppers quarterback Brendan Doughty, stepped in front of his pass and dashed 36 yards to the end zone.
The next three Western Kentucky plays: Tennessee linebacker Dontavis Sapp stripped Western Kentucky tailback Antonio Andrews and fell on the ball; linebacker Brent Brewer popped the ball from Andrews' grasp and walk-on safety Max Arnold scooped it up; and Doughty hit Brewer right in the No. 17 on his jersey as Corey Miller blasted him.
With a whopping 68 yards of offense, Tennessee led 31-3 only 22 seconds into the second quarter.
"It turned in a hurry," Petrino said. "That's for sure."
Said Tennessee defensive end Jordan Williams: "Every one was like a new surprise. It was hard to believe."
Randolph twice picked Doughty in the end zone as the Vols kept the 'Toppers from coming any closer than two scores.
"We were in the film room an awful lot," Coleman said. "We were trying to do our best because we knew this was a great team and it was going to come down to the fourth quarter. Basically we just tried to execute everything 100 percent."
"I just believe," Randolph added, "that that was 100 percent hard work for us and just being in the right place in the right time."
In an opposite fashion from a year ago, Tennessee's defense picked up its scuffling offense, which was outgained 236-84 and ran 22 fewer plays in the first half.
"That's really big," left tackle Antonio "Tiny" Richardson said. "It's just showing how our defense is starting to come together. I think they played really well because they got us out of some bad situations early in the first half.
"They put us the red zone twice to score, because we were struggling in the first half a little bit, but it's really good to see those guys coming together like they are."
Tennessee took the opening possession of the second half 59 yards for a touchdown and a 38-17 lead.
"We knew that if we went out and executed and came out with a good drive and scored, it'd help with our momentum," quarterback Justin Worley said after bouncing back from a 3-of-9 first half to finish 11-of-19 passing for 142 yards with one touchdown and one interception. "They got a little bit of momentum back late in the first half. We put a lot of emphasis of going out and scoring that first drive."
The Vols leaned on tailbacks Rajion Neal (74 yards, three touchdowns) and Marlin Lane (97 yards, one touchdown) after halftime to put the game away.
Tennessee expected a four-quarter game against Petrino and Western Kentucky, which took out Kentucky without much trouble in Nashville a week ago, but the turnovers helped remove much of the doubt in the outcome.
"It would have been really close [without the five-turnover stretch], because they were moving the ball on us a little bit," defensive tackle Daniel Hood said . "They started off, I think, with that -play drive, so that was a big momentum swing. It put everything in our favor and gave us a chance to go up by a lot.
"Any time you've got a team coming in trying to upset you, and you could do that to them, it takes away a lot of what they're doing."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...