“Against an inferior opponent, show no mercy.”
Kiffin wielded cutthroat strategy in the Volunteers’ 56-28 win over Memphis. And his players loved every minute of it.
“It definitely fires us up,” linebacker LaMarcus Thompson said. “We know our coach trusts us to get the job done.”
Kiffin poured it on the Tigers at every opportunity, at least while the starters remained in the game. Tailback Montario Hardesty attempted a pass on Tennessee’s very first offensive play. Receiver Gerald Jones threw a pass. The Vols went for an onside kick while already holding a 14-0 lead. And they went on fourth down three times in the first half.
Like I said, cutthroat.
“I had to really make sure they knew we were going after this thing,” Kiffin explained after the game. “So I told them there would be fourth downs where we will go for it. We’re going to throw a halfback pass. We’re going to try an onside kick. It was so they felt the coaches were being very aggressive so we didn’t come out and have a letdown game after we had such a big game last week.”
Certainly, Memphis was the worst opponent Tennessee has played since Western Kentucky in the 2009 opener. In both games, the Vols never let up, and the outcome was assured going into the fourth quarter.
Both games were an impressive display of football, the type of performance UT should put on any time a foe of Memphis’ ilk comes into Neyland Stadium.
And, to be honest, that sort of effort had been absent in years past.
Even before Tennessee’s program first took a nosedive in 2005, Phillip Fulmer’s Vols showed a tendency to play up — or down — to their level of competition.
Oh sure, place UT as a three-touchdown underdog to a Southeastern Conference rival and Fulmer rallied the troops around a perceived lack of respect — a card played to increasing frequency in the final years of his tenure.
But bring in a team the Vols should beat handily, and there was a 50/50 chance Tennessee would struggle just to win the game.
Don’t take my word for it either.
“We don’t kill teams,” former Vol QB Erik Ainge said in 2007, his senior season. “We don’t go beat people by 40 points here and 40 points there. We’re used to playing from behind or playing just ahead.”
This season, the Vols have an average margin of victory of 27.8 points per game. Take away the two non-conference blowouts and the 34-23 Ohio win, and UT still beat Georgia and South Carolina by 44 points combined.
Under Fulmer, the Vols expected tough, hard-fought games. Now, the program is being run by a man who expects to beat nationally ranked opponents by three TDs at home.
And says so on the record.
It remains to be seen whether Kiffin can compete with the SEC elite over the long haul. But Saturday night was what a homecoming game should be for a program of Tennessee’s tradition.
A walk in the park.
John Moorehouse covers University of Tennessee football for the Times-News. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.