Behind 4 plays of 40+ yards, Tennessee ran up over 500 yards of total offense in Friday night's season-opening 35-21 win over N. C. State. Tyler Bray spearheaded the attack, throwing for 332 yards and 2 scores without an interception. JUCO transfer wideout Cordarrelle Patterson ignited the UT ground game that was dormant for all of last season with a 67-yard score on an end around, and the Vols complimented Bray's big game with 193 rushing yards en route to snapping a 6-game losing streak in the dome.
When Brandon Bishop dislodged the ball from Bray as he tried to QB sneak it into the endzone just before halftime, it appeared the Wolfpack had wrestled away Tennessee's momentum. After getting stunned for 22 points in the opening frame, State managed to close to 22-14 and keep it that way going into intermission when Rickey Dowdy fell on Bray's fumble.
State got the second half kickoff and marched down the field, only to have the drive stall when Andrew Wallace was hit with a personal foul call by the SEC screw for an after-whistle shove. From that point on it was all Tennessee. Rajion Neal scored on an 8-yard jaunt and Michael Palardi added 3 more on a 20-yard field goal to push Tennessee's lead to 32-14 heading into the fourth quarter.
Bryan Underwood's 5-yard touchdown reception from Mike Glennon, who was 27/46 for 287 yards, cut the lead to 32-21, but State turned the ball over far too frequently to mount a serious challenge. Glennon tossed 4 picks, one third of his total for all of 2011, giving the Pack a -3 turnover margin for the game. And that does not count Glennon's fumble that teammate Logan Winkles fell on in the endzone for a Tennessee safety.
Turnovers are an important barometer for State; it was +2.25 in turnover margin in wins a year ago and -0.8 in losses. Another key for the Pack is getting pressure on the quarterback, but Bray spent the night comfortably picking apart the secondary from the pocket, getting sacked just once for a 3-yard loss. Tennessee only managed one sack of its own-the 18-yard loss that led to a safety-but its rush did enough to hurry Glennon all night.
The lack of pressure on Bray, coupled with a possible blown assignment, made all-American corner David Amerson, who led the nation with 13 picks a year ago, the goat for N. C. State. Amerson was beaten deep twice, first on Patterson's 41-yard touchdown and later on a 72-yard pitch and catch to Zach Rogers when it appeared Amerson thought he had safety help from over the top. Amerson watched helplessly as Rogers ran by him for a score that put UT up 13-7.
Patterson finished with 165 yards combined through the air and on the ground, and fellow wideout Justin Hunter, who missed most of last season with a knee injury, looked healthy in making a game-high 9 grabs for 73 yards.
At issue for N. C. State in this game was the play of the trio of new starters at linebacker. Veteran Sterling Lucas, who sat out last season with an injury, made 9 tackles and accounted for the lone sack, and Dowdy posted 6 tackles and the fumble recovery, but the State linebackers looked a step slow in space. Pack DBs, led by Earl Wolff's 12 tackles, were forced to make 43 stops, and linebacker Brandon Pittman, appearing as a regular for the first time, did not record a single tackle.
There were some positives for the Pack. Juston Burris, not Dontae Johnson, drew the start across from Amerson at corner, and not only did Burris not get beat deep, but he also proved to be a capable tackler in the open field. The redshirt freshman recorded 8 stops and one pass break up in his first action for the Pack. Johnson spent most of the evening as the nickel/linebacker hybrid in a 4-2-5 set and made 5 stops, including 1.5 tackles for a loss.
Offensively, Quintin Payton broke out with 129 yards receiving on 4 catches, and the running back tandem of Tony Creecy and Mustafa Greene combined for 101 yards on 21 carries, an average of 4.8 yards per run. Throw out Patterson's long end around, and State yielded a respectable 3.4 yards per rush. Throw out Glennon's negative yardage on the safety, and State averaged 4.5 yards per carry as a team. Of course you cannot throw out big plays and penalties, and the Pack will have to improve vastly in those areas over the remainder of the season for a third straight bowl game, much less a run at a conference championship, to be in their future.