James Stone on this week's game against WKU
If there is a weakness on your team, Bobby Petrino will find it, exploit it and make you look foolish.
That’s the assessment from Tennessee linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen, who helped prepare a game plan for Petrino and his Arkansas Razorbacks during four consecutive years as an assistant at Auburn.
After a messy breakup at Arkansas, Petrino is now rebuilding his coaching career at Western Kentucky. His Hilltoppers (1-0) face Tennessee (1-0) on Saturday (TV: MyVLT, 12:21 p.m.) at Neyland Stadium.
“We’re playing one of the best minds in college football,” Thigpen said.
The Vols are favored by about two touchdowns and it would be a surprise — perhaps a major one — if Tennessee didn’t win on Saturday.
But that hasn’t stopped the game from being a trendy upset pick.
Western Kentucky beat Kentucky 35-26 last Saturday, amassing 487 yards of total offense in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the score indicated.
The Hilltoppers won seven games last year, and coach Willie Taggart bolted for South Florida. Most thought that WKU, a longtime Division II and Football Championship Subdivision power that moved up to the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2008, would hire another up-and-coming coach.
Instead, WKU landed Petrino, who would have likely been the top coach on the free-agent market were it not for his toxic past.
Petrino was fired at Arkansas after a motorcycle accident revealed an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate. Even before then, Petrino faced heavy national criticism for the way he left jobs at Louisville in 2006 and the Atlanta Falcons a year later.
But the way Petrino built programs and won games was enough to make him one of the most respected — if sometimes reviled — head coaches in the nation.
That’s why Western Kentucky’s football program has gotten more attention since the hiring than they have at any other time in its history.
“He’s given us an identity,” said WKU athletic director Todd Stewart.
Tennessee coach Butch Jones, who’s also coaching just his second game at his new school, has faced Petrino twice before when Petrino was at Louisville and Jones was an assistant at West Virginia.
“They’re well coached, and they’re very dynamic on offense,” Jones said. “They do all the different things that really keep a defense on edge. We’re going to have to be extremely disciplined. They do a great job creating matchups — backs on linebackers, receivers on linebackers.”
If Petrino’s talent is exploiting weaknesses — Thigpen said he goes after “the weakest player on the football field” — then the Vols could offer some intriguing defensive targets.
Starting cornerback Cameron Sutton is a true freshman. So is his backup, Malik Foreman. So is backup nickel corner Devaun Swafford.
“Our identity is on film from the first game, and now you’re going to see more matchups that teams try to create against us,” Jones said.
Petrino said he’s not sure how much of that identity the Vols revealed in Game 1, a 45-0 win over Austin Peay in which the benches were emptied after halftime.
“They were up 45-0 and focuses change a little bit, so I don’t put a whole lot into that,” Petrino said. “We have to worry about ourselves.”
Because WKU opened in a rivalry game against an SEC opponent, the Hilltoppers probably left little on the shelf.
“Our style changes a little bit week to week, but we haven’t really held a lot back at all,” Petrino said.
Thigpen said Petrino’s schemes became more impressive each year. With a year off after his dismissal at Arkansas, the coach may be sharper than ever.
“The best word is he exploits what you do,” Thigpen said. “Then schematically, he’s probably one of the best football minds when it comes to X’s and O’s. I studied him every year when I was at Auburn and it seemed like he would get better and better every season.”
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.