Western Kentucky defense

Western Kentucky defense

Given how poorly Tennessee's offense performed last fall, the ideal Game 1 foe for 2009 would be a team with a leaky defense ... a team that would enable the Vol attack to enjoy early success and build some confidence.

A team like Western Kentucky, for instance.

The Hilltoppers - who are, in fact, UT's Game 1 foe - struggled mightily to stop opponents last season. They allowed 375.2 yards and 27.2 points per game. They surrendered 18 rushing touchdowns and 18 passing touchdowns. They allowed opposing passers to complete a whopping 63 percent of their throws for an average of 212.8 yards per game. They also allowed opponents to average 4.4 yards per carry en route to 162.4 rushing yards per game.

Moreover, the '08 Hilltoppers were slow starters. They were outscored 191-93 in the first half last season, and Neyland Stadium is a really bad place for slow-starting Game 1 visitors. Just ask Jeff Tedford, whose ninth-ranked Cal Golden Bears fell behind 35-0 in the Vols' 2006 opener.

Western Kentucky faced two SEC teams a year ago and was hammered each time, losing 41-7 to Alabama and 41-3 to Kentucky.

The Hilltoppers trailed 31-7 at halftime against the Tide and wound up surrendering 281 passing yards, 276 rushing yards and 557 total yards. Bama averaged 13.1 yards per completion, kept the ball 37:21 to WKU's 22:39 and did not punt the entire game.

The Big Blue wasn't quite so dominant but still won handily. Kentucky averaged 5.7 yards per carry en route to 216 rushing yards. The Wildcats added 182 passing yards to finish with 398 total yards. They also exploited WKU's tackling problems on special teams. Derrick Locke returned a kickoff 100 yards and Dicky Lyons Jr., returned a punt 44 yards.

First-year coordinator Mike Dietzel is getting a second shot at overseeing WKU's defense. He previously served as the Hilltoppers' DC in 2004 and 2005 before being demoted to outside linebackers/special teams coach in 2006, 2007 and 2008.

Unfortunately for Dietzel, two of the top three defenders from 2008 - safety Travis Watters (73 tackles) and linebacker Alonzo Higgins (67 stops) - are out of eligibility. The best of the returnees is Blake Boyd, a 6-3, 245-pound linebacker who recorded 67 stops, 3.5 sacks and 7 pass breakups last season.

Three more veteran 'backers will be back this fall - 5-9, 234-pound Darvis McBride (50 stops), 6-0, 220-pound L.J. Harbison (49 stops) and 6-1, 216-pound Taurean Smith (49 stops).

Bottom line: Unless Dietzel can turn things around in one year, WKU's defense should help Tennessee's new pro-style attack get off to a positive start come Sept. 5.

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