Vols notebook: Turnovers finally come (and in bunches) for defense

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee fifth-year senior linebacker Solon Page (38) celebrates his 31-yard interception return for a touchdown during Saturday's 56-0 win over Tennessee Tech.

KNOXVILLE - Tennessee is assured of no longer ranking last nationally in turnover margin.

The Volunteers entered Saturday's game against Tennessee Tech having lost five turnovers through two games and having not collected any for a minus-2.50 ratio per contest. In the 56-0 dismantling of the Golden Eagles, the Vols lost a Hendon Hooker fumble but snagged four interceptions to post a plus-three performance in the rather important category.

"You guys had asked that question a bunch: 'How are you going to force those things to happen?'" Vols coach Josh Heupel said. "It happens because you put a lot of pressure on the quarterback. It happens when you get your hands on the balls. When you have opportunities, guys make plays.

"Today, you saw some of those things, and we've got to continue to rip at it. We've got to force fumbles, too."

Junior safety Jaylen McCullough had Tennessee's first takeaway of the season with his interception of Willie Miller, which he returned 16 yards to Tennessee Tech's 37-yard line late in the first quarter.

"All week, coaches were harping on turnovers and making plays on the ball," McCollough said. "I feel like that was our main focus coming into today. We executed. We played hard, and we played fast, and it showed."

One of Tennessee's interceptions resulted in instant points, as fifth-year senior linebacker Solon Page took an errant Davis Shanley pass 31 yards back into the end zone for a touchdown midway through the third quarter that made it 42-0.

"Once the ball came out of the quarterback's hands and I saw it up in the air, I was like, 'Oh my God, I've got to go get it,'" Page said. "Once it got in my hands, it was muscle memory at that point. It was just going down and making the touchdown."

When asked what the score meant to Page, who has played under three separate coaching staffs, he said: "Obviously it means a lot. I haven't always had the big opportunities, and now that I'm starting to get them, I'm just blessed."

photo AP photo by Wade Payne / Tennessee quarterback Harrison Bailey tries to slip away from the Tennessee Tech defense during Saturday's game in Knoxville.

Quarterback talk

Heupel was asked what factored into Hooker getting his first start with the Vols and how Joe Milton, who started the Bowling Green and Pittsburgh games before getting injured in the latter, was doing.

"Joe had some opportunities to work with us during the middle part of the week," Heupel said. "At the end of the week, we didn't feel like he would be ready. I think the next couple of days will be big in his rehab, and we'll see where he's at when we get on the field on Tuesday."

Hooker took a majority of the first-team reps this past week, Heupel added, with Harrison Bailey working with the backups. In the waning moments of the third quarter Saturday and with the Vols leading 49-0, Bailey entered for the first time this season.

Bailey, a 6-foot-5, 220-pound sophomore from Marietta, Georgia, was 3-of-7 passing for 16 yards.

"I thought he did a really good job," Heupel said. "He was efficient and had his eyes on the right spots. On some of the run-pass options, he made the right decision and got the ball out of his hands. I thought he escaped a couple of times."

The yellow stuff

Velus Jones Jr. opened the game by returning the kickoff to Tennessee Tech's 3-yard line, but the 89-yard gain was wiped out by a holding penalty. The Vols instead had to begin at their own 22-yard line.

"It was a short kick," Jones said. "I caught it and looked up. I was going to hit a seam but it closed, and I bounced out and hit the sideline. I let my instincts kick in."

If there was a silver lining to that moment for the Vols, it was that the flag would not be a sign of more penalties to come. In last weekend's 41-34 loss to Pittsburgh, the Vols committed 13 penalties for 134 yards, but they had only two flags for 25 yards after the opening infraction Saturday.

"I thought we played cleaner," Heupel said. "We had way fewer penalties. I thought we handled that the right way."

photo AP photo by Wade Payne / Tennessee wide receiver Velus Jones Jr. (1) tries to find an angle to get past Tennessee Tech linebacker Xavier Washington during the second half of Saturday's game in Knoxville.

Odds and ends

Tennessee is 7-0 lifetime against Tennessee Tech by the combined score of 353-20. ... Making their first career starts for the Vols were running back Tiyon Evans, receiver Walker Merrill and left guard Kingston Harris. ... Tennessee has scored 30 or more points in its first three games for the first time since 2004. ... The Vols used a whopping 88 players, including 19 who made their debuts. ... Tennessee has outscored foes 38-0 during the first quarter. ... Junior edge rusher Byron Young amassed six tackles in his first game. ... Backup punter Kolby Morgan, a freshman from Oneida, launched a 55-yarder to Tennessee Tech's 6 midway through the second quarter. ... Pittsburgh followed up its win over Tennessee with a 44-41 loss to Western Michigan.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.