(Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with the family, friends, and community of Isaac Grub, the UT fan who fell from the upper deck of the Georgia Dome and lost his life on Friday night.)
Just before kickoff Friday night, Al Wilson and Torry Holt came out in a very small car to deliver the game ball. Each went to their respective sideline and called for volume from the crowd. Only Wilson was unsatisfied with the initial response. He kept coming, kept waving, scowl looking just as good and just as terrifying as it did 14 years ago. We kept getting louder. And then Big Al turned, and slowly waved his hand to his ear. Whatcha. Gonna. Do. Brother.
The last time Tennessee ran wild in the Georgia Dome, it came on an almost identical sequence of events from last night: late in the fourth quarter of the SEC Championship Game all those 14 years ago, the Vols threw a bomb to take the lead, then forced a fumble on the next offensive snap on a play Big Al was in on, then scored a touchdown on the next offensive snap to put the game away. I was there that night too, and on many others like many of you where Tennessee just keeps making good things happen, and the stadium - home, away, neutral, even the Georgia Dome - gets that buzz. That old familiar feeling.
The buzz was back last night. I sat in the lower level and we were on our feet almost the entire game. The first touchdown was more about Cordarrelle Patterson than anything else, and rightfully so. But what came later was special, and a huge boost to belief. You will believe Zach Rogers can dust the best cornerback on the field. You will believe the Vols can get pressure on the quarterback and somehow get a safety on a play that started at the 19 yard line. And you will believe in Cordarrelle Patterson. Boom, boom, boom, 22-7.
It didn't turn into Cal 2006 from there, which would've been fun - NC State hung around for much of the rest of the night. But instead, we got a small dose of adversity...and we answered the bell.
At 22-14, when Tyler Bray's sneak was ruled a fumble and then not overturned (and had it been called a touchdown I doubt they would've overturned it either), the ghosts of the Georgia Dome were allowed to live through halftime. But Tennessee executed and exorcised them in the second half. The defense did their part by allowing NC State to get no closer than the UT 40 on their critical opening drive of the third quarter. Then Tennessee unleashed a 14 play 87 yard beast that included four third down conversions - two on 3rd and 10 completions to Justin Hunter and Zach Rogers - and finished with Rajion Neal in the end zone. And then for good measure, Byron Moore picked off Mike Glennon and Marlin Lane immediately followed with 42 yards on the ground. Those two plays led to a field goal and a three possession lead, and it was more than enough.
This win was a number of things: satisfying, relieving, etc - but it's also exactly what a first game is supposed to be: the one with the most room for growth.
Consider this: Tennessee missed an extra point on a high snap, failed on fourth down twice in NC State territory (Dooley is super aggressive, by the way), and Glennon had a fumble that bounced right to his offensive lineman the play before their second touchdown. This, plus the Bray goal line fumble? This game could've been in the neighborhood of 50-14, easy. 35-21 doesn't do it justice, but it does leave room for beautiful growth.
So yeah, the defense gave up 407 yards, but they'll get better. The defensive linemen need to tackle better, but the linebackers certainly do not. Everything NC State tried in the short passing game was eaten alive. This will be h-u-g-e against Florida. The Vols had nine interceptions in 2011 and four last night. And dare I say, did we see real and meaningful halftime adjustments to eliminate the gaping holes in our zone that Glennon found in the first half? The defense will get better, and will not face an elite offense until September 29, at least.
Will the run game get better? Take away CP and Bray and UT's running backs got 126 yards on 33 carries, 3.8 per. Rajion Neal got it a ton, 22 for 53 yards. Eight of his carries went for five or more yards. And nine of his carries went for negative yards or no gain. Can we find more feast and less famine from #20? And what of Marlin Lane's 75 yards on nine carries? Will we be seeing more of him? Stay tuned.
But you know what else will get better? The rest of the passing game, which was pretty good already. We know Bray, we know Hunter, and if CP just plays that well the rest of the year I think we'll all take it. But the rest of those guys - including all of the freshmen we didn't see - can get better, and can earn more trust from Mr. Bray. I can't tell you how happy it makes me to not miss Da'Rick Rogers. And I can tell you that, all due respect, if that was the best secondary we'll face all year, then I am Mickey Mouse.
We played well, and we can play better. It's exactly what you want in Game One. So the Vols leave the Georgia Dome in ashes and move on to do just that against Georgia State. We've seen South Carolina in a big game and will see Georgia and Florida in one next week. It's a long year. But no matter what happens between now and then, the Vols will walk into Neyland Stadium in two weeks and believe they can win. They earned the right to do so.
Whatcha gonna do? Where will Tennessee go from here? After last night, I think we're all excited to find out. And if the Vols can and do continue to improve, that question will be turned on our opponents...and we might run as wild as we want.
Stuff's getting better. Stuff's getting better every day.