Western Kentucky running back Keshawn Simpson (34) fumbles the ball as he falls beneath a pile of Tennessee Vols on Saturday. (AP Photo/Chattanooga Times Free Press, Doug Strickland)
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The difference in Tennessee's defense this season has been the Volunteers making big plays instead of allowing them.
Tennessee (2-0) has nine takeaways to match Tulane for the most among Football Bowl Subdivision teams. The Volunteers forced seven turnovers and scored two defensive touchdowns last week in a 52-20 victory over Western Kentucky.
This represents a clear change for a defense that produced only 17 turnovers last season, when the Vols gave up the most points (35.7) and yards (471.4) per game of any Southeastern Conference team. But it shouldn't come as a surprise. New Tennessee coach Butch Jones has made forcing turnovers a priority throughout his career.
"A couple of years ago, we really didn't work on it as much," said linebacker Brent Brewer, who forced a fumble and picked off a pass against Western Kentucky. "Here, that's what (Jones) preaches, and we live by it."
Tennessee probably must continue its ball-hawking ways Saturday to have a shot at pulling an upset Saturday at No. 2 Oregon, a 27½-point favorite. Oregon (2-0) hasn't turned the ball over this season and knows Tennessee's reputation for producing takeaways.
"They're big and athletic guys, typical of an SEC defense," Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota said. "They're going to come out and play hard. They created six or seven turnovers in their last game against Western Kentucky. We have to really focus on making sure we take care of the ball."
Nobody's taken care of the ball against Tennessee so far, just as Big East teams struggled to avoid turnovers against Jones' Cincinnati teams.
Jones' teams have produced 70 turnovers since the start of the 2011 season. Purdue's Darrell Hazell and Colorado's Mike MacIntyre are the only FBS coaches whose teams have caused more turnovers during that stretch. Before this season, Hazell was coaching Kent State and MacIntyre was at San Jose State.
"It's a standard by which we live each and every day," Jones said. "You have to coach it. You have to teach it every single day."
That work paid off last week, as Western Kentucky turned the ball over five times in a span of six snaps during the first quarter. Cornerbacks Justin Coleman and Cameron Sutton returned interceptions for touchdowns. Safety Brian Randolph had two interceptions and became Tennessee's first SEC defensive player of the week since 2008.
"We actually have our own period during practice where we just work on stripping the ball, picking it up, scooping and scoring," Randolph said. "It's a big emphasis."
That emphasis has included playing videotapes showing the various methods players use to force turnovers. For instance, Jones frequently shows a video of players using what he calls the "lawnmower" move by reaching toward the ball and then pulling their arm backward to force a fumble.
"How you crank up a lawnmower, that's the same motion you strip a ball with," linebacker Dontavis Sapp said.
Sure enough, when a trio of Tennessee defenders swarmed Western Kentucky running back Keshawn Simpson last week, Sapp utilized that technique to cause a fumble. Jones called it a "textbook" example of the lawnmower move and said he plans to include that play in future videos showcasing the proper way to force turnovers.
Jones hopes his team produces more highlight-worthy takeaways Saturday.