KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - It's those seven turnovers. That's why Bobby Petrino's your man, Mr. or Mrs. athletic director looking for a new coach next year.
Damn right that's the reason. Otherwise the disgraced-then-rebranded former Arkansas head coach would've very likely had his second SEC win in as many weeks as a Sun Belt coach. That's why you hire Bobby Petrino, Mr. or Mrs. AQ program with an opening in the near future.
Right now this man's offensive game plans have SEC on CBS gravitas. But they're being executed by regional broadcast talent. You can tell it's just killing him.
Tennessee beat Petrino's Western Kentucky, 52-20, on Saturday, aided by five interceptions from Hilltoppers quarterback Brandon Doughty in only his second start. WKU committed three turnovers in four consecutive plays, yielding 14 points on two pick-sixes by the Vols. It was part of a run of five turnovers in six minutes that turned a 3-0 Western lead to a 24-3 Vols' advantage by the end of the 1st quarter.
"It turned in a hurry, that's for sure," an noticeably cheerier Petrino said after the game. (Note: He's really upbeat now! More smiles with teeth! More eye contact!)
But seriously, prospective employer, other than that one stretch of pure football hell, the 'Toppers outplayed Tennessee early and often. Consider that Vols quarterback Justin Worley was only 1-of-4 passing and UT gained only 52 yards on 12 plays, but led by 21. It was WKU that looked like the SEC offense, leading a 14-play, 55-yard scoring drive to open the game, and even after the turnovers, rattled off an 80-yard touchdown drive and blocked a UT punt with under a minute left in the half to set up a Doughty touchdown pass.
Trailing 31-17 at the half, WKU had outgained the Vols 236-84 and led first downs 14-4. When not being intercepted on first downs, Doughty was converting 66 percent on third downs. Tennessee didn't convert on third down once in the first half. If they weren't starting inside the Western 10-yard-line or better, they couldn't sustain a drive. It defied logic, but even after five turnovers momentum was still with WKU in the locker room.
"We didn’t change the plan; we actually added to the way we were going to start the game," Tennessee head coach Butch Jones said. "We went back and we executed better. Hats off to the offensive line. I thought they established the line of scrimmage again."
That's what Petrino can't game plan against at Western Kentucky: a SEC roster, even a thin one, imposing its will with a lead. Behind an offensive line with NFL Draft talent, the Vols ran for four touchdowns and 191 yards in the second half alone. Worley improved his passing game but never looked poised (11-of-19, one touchdown, one interception). But when you can just lean, lean, and keep leaning, poise doesn't matter, size and talent does.
"In the second half they just took over and beat us up. They ran the ball when they wanted to, how they wanted to, and we weren't able to get the ball in the end zone offensively," Petrino said.
It's far too early to judge the Hilltoppers under Petrino, but even an offensive genius is shackled by the ceiling of his available talent.
That fact alone, buoyed by the man's substantial ego as a football mind, is why Petrino will be working somewhere else next season. He's done an impressive job of grafting former WKU head coach Willie Taggart's power run game to his one-back passing system, allowing 2012 all-purpose yardage leader Antonio Andrews to run effectively in a zone system, thus setting up Petrino's notoriously sneaky play-action passing.
Petrino's tactics exposed the middle of the field on drag routes, and the Vols routinely left tight ends and running backs wide open on wheels and flares compounded by pre-snap motions. The Oregon offense set to host these Vols next Saturday should have Christmas-morning levels of overstimulation breaking this film down. He had Tennessee figured out, which wasn't so much a victory of wits over new UT defensive coordinator John Jancek as it was a matter of timing. The Volunteers defense that allowed an all-time awful average of 417 yards per game in 2012 is far from healed and is thin on versatility.
The same could be said about WKU's 35-26 win over a new-regime Kentucky, but for the always upwardly mobile Petrino, those details are cursory at best. Maybe with a better quarterback than Doughty, a redshirt junior in only his third start after a 2011 knee injury froze his career, Western could've mounted a comeback. Instead Doughty threw two interceptions in the Vols' end zone, negating 14 points, and telegraphed two lofty passes across the field, one of which gave UT 7 points. Petrino's route trees confused the Vols, but maybe with better receivers he could've found even more separation. Instead, true freshman Taywan Taylor let a Doughty pass bump off his chest and into the arms of Vols corner Justin Coleman, who took in for a score.
"I’ve never ever been associated with anything like that," Jones said of the sudden burst of successive turnovers.
"I don't remember being a part of anything like that, that many interceptions and that many turnovers back-to-back-to-back-to-back," Petrino said.
With his offensive acumen left only to evaluate his opponent's effort, Petrino gave a burnt offering when asked to assess Tennessee's second-half adjustments on offense.
"I kind of felt like they wanted to work on their passing game, that they came out and said that, 'Hey, we're going to come out here and work on our passing game and get better throwing the ball,' and they did."
They did because they could, and they could against Bobby Petrino, Bobby Petrino realized. That fact is killing him.