You can win a lot of football games with an explosive offense and an opportunistic defense. Tennessee proved as much in Friday's 35-21 Game 1 defeat of North Carolina State.
Although it gave up 407 total yards, the Vol defense recorded four take-aways (all interceptions) and a safety. Meanwhile, the Vol offense surrendered just one give-away.
Here's a real news flash: When you're plus-3 on turnover margin, you're going to win just about every time you take the field.
Offensively, Tennessee ran for 191 yards, which represents a vast improvement over last year's 90.1 yards-per-game average. If you discount a 67-yard end-around by Cordarrelle Patterson, however, the Vols managed a mere 124 yards on 37 carries — an average of just 3.35 yards per carry. That's a step up from last year's per-carry average of 2.8 but the ground game still is nowhere near ready for quality SEC defenses.
Quarterback Tyler Bray missed a few open receivers but was generally sharp in connecting on 27 of 41 attempts for 333 yards and two touchdowns. The key number is the fact he put the ball up 41 times without throwing a pick.
Bray made a huge mental blunder just before halftime when he tried to reach the ball across the goal line while surrounded by N.C. State defenders. The ball was swatted from his hand, costing Tennessee a sure touchdown. A false-start penalty on Zach Fulton at the Wolfpack 3-yard line turned another sure TD into a field goal and a fourth-down drop by Justin Hunter at the Wolfpack 27-yard line probably cost Tennessee at least a field goal. Bottom line: Tennessee left a minimum of 14 points on the field, which would have turned a 35-point effort into a 49-point outing.
This was the opener, however, and mistakes occur in Game 1 that will be fixed by Game 3 or 4.
Offensive MVP—Cordarrelle Patterson
The junior college transfer was the difference as Tennessee built a 22-14 halftime lead. His 41-yard reception produced the Vols' first touchdown and his 67-yard end-around produced the third one. He finished his debut with a team-high 93 yards on six catches and 72 yards on two rushing attempts.
Defensively, Sal Sunseri's high-risk/high-reward 3-4 scheme did precisely what most observers expected it to do: It gave up some big plays but it made some big plays, too.
The four interceptions were encouraging, especially since Tennessee registered just nine picks in 12 games last fall. Each of the picks was timely, too.
Prentiss Waggner's first-quarter interception turned the momentum, coming with N.C. State up 7-6 and apparently driving for another score. Tennessee scored on the first play of its ensuing possession and never trailed again. Byron Moore's third-quarter interception and 18-yard return gave Tennessee the ball at the Wolfpack 45-yard line and set up a field goal that bumped the lead to 32-14. N.C. State got back in the game with a fourth-quarter TD that narrowed the gap to 32-21 but Eric Gordon intercepted to shift the momentum back to the Vols. Marsalis Teague's end-zone interception with five seconds left sealed the win.
Defensive MVP—Eric Gordon
In addition to his interception, he applied the pressure on a cornerback blitz that forced N.C. State's Mike Glennon to hurry a fourth-down incompletion with 5:04 left and Tennessee leading just 32-21. Tennessee parlayed the resulting possession and field position (Wolfpack 39-yard line) into a game-clinching field goal. Gordon finished with five stops, including a tackle for loss and a no-gain stop in punt coverage. Maybe that's why they call his role the "star" position.