It's hard to find much wrong with a season-starting, 35-21 victory over a North Carolina State team that is expected to be a dark-horse contender for the ACC championship game. But one of the beautiful things about Friday night's game in the Georgia Dome is the coaches should have plenty of things to work on after film session.
What is also perfect timing is getting to have a teaching week -- a breather of sorts against a Georgia State team that lost 33-6 to FCS South Carolina State on Thursday night. Quite simply, the Vols can win this game going away playing their third team. It won't be a challenge, and UT should use a lot of the game to get looks at a bunch of key backup players in positions that can help them down the road, especially at linebacker, tight end, wide receiver and in the secondary.
But coaches need something to teach and something to praise, so let's take a look back at Friday's win and dissect some of the highlights [and not-so-high-lights] of the season-opening win. Not making the list was UT's total undressing of NC State's two most heralded players, Mike Glennon and David Amerson. It's almost like the Vols said, "We'll take your two best players and embarrass them just to show you how good we can be."
That made me happy in an evil sort of way.
Tyler Bray's management of the game. It was something that we heard positives about all preseason but, in the back of our collective fanbase's mind, we all wondered silently about the level of improvement. Bray's talent is unquestioned, but could the junior quarterback do the management things that could put us in better match-up situations? Could he not force the issue when his primary and secondary reads weren't there? While we don't know what he did pre-snap, Bray was praised by Derek Dooley for his performance. The UT signal-caller finished 27-of-41 for 333 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. His only fumble wasn't really a fumble. Perhaps equally as important, Bray had two really mature throw-aways when plays weren't there, and he checked down to a safety valve on third-and-goal at one point rather than risk the interception by forcing a ball into a situation that wasn't open. He had some missed open men, but when you factor in Justin Hunter's two drops, his numbers should have been much better.
- What we can 'takeaway' from this. I wrote a full article on this Saturday, but given the lack of comments, it probably wasn't best to wax poetic on the topic and post it in the middle of the first week of college football games. Anyway, you can get in depth at the link, but the bottom line is a defense that forced just 18 turnovers all last season had four and a fumble-safety against a really polished offense with a senior quarterback in Mike Glennon. The Vols were far from perfect, but they were relentless and really for the first time since really the forgettable 2005 season. [If you recall, the defense was good that season, even if the team was poor]. This might be the most opportunistic defense UT has had in longer than that. Sure, it's just one game, though. Curt Maggitt, Daniel McCullers, Corey Miller, Eric Gordon, Jacques Smith and Dontavis Sapp all impressed me upon re-watch.
- Do the Bart Man. The Bartholomew legacy in Knoxville is up there with the Majors, DeLongs and Colquitts, and though the latest in his family to be a Vol was a late-bloomer, senior H-back Ben Bartholomew had a quality season last year in unseating Channing Fugate as the first-team fullback. Against the Wolfpack in his first game as a senior, he had two catches for 19 yards but on second glance, had a really stellar night blocking up front -- enough to get a game ball and make it into my top five over Marlin Lane's great performance. Also, on Cordarrelle Patterson's highlight-reel 67-yard touchdown run, he had the block of the night on the edge to get it going.
- Filling Da'Gap. Speaking of CP, is there any question this kid can play on this level after Friday? WOW! He got an ESPN game ball for the weekend and finished with six catches for 93 yards and two rushes for 72 yards, resulting in two touchdowns. He was a monster in his first major college football game. While Hunter had to shake some of the rust after returning from his torn ACL, he quietly put together a quality performance with nine catches for 73 yards including being the go-to guy on third downs. I also cannot say enough about Zach Rogers who hauled in the 72-yard touchdown catch, making a difficult over-the-shoulder catch and also getting a key first down in his two catches for 87 yards.
- Second-half adjustments. This focuses on first-year defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri but can really be attributed to the entire team. After the Vols struggled some in the first half defensively, the pass defense tightened up to allow just 60 second-half passing yards with a lot of that coming in garbage time. The rush defense was generally good all night. Also, when the team was dealt a bit of adversity with the should-have-been-overruled fumble at the end of the first half, it responded well for really the first time in the Dooley era. Offense came back with a long touchdown drive in the third quarter, and the separation was there to get a win. Finally, we got a complete game. I also thought our offensive line had a much, much better game and was REALLY impressed with Zach Fulton and Ja'Wuan James, especially in the second half. Those guys can be really good.
- Rajion Neal and the hopes that he is The Answer at RB. Maybe the junior from Fayetteville, Ga., is still the guy. I'm certainly not suggesting I've given up on him. But he took a back seat to honorable mention 'Trending Up' candidate Marlin Lane against the Pack. Neal had 22 carries for just 53 yards, a 2.4 average. There were times when Dooley was noticeably, animatedly frustrated with Neal's dancing at the line of scrimmage or reluctance to stick his nose inside and churn for the up-the-middle yards. He missed multiple holes. There were the couple of outside runs early where you saw his speed and promise, and then there was the touchdown run where he made a nice surge through the middle, but it was not the best starting debut. Lane took a step forward on him.
- Seam Coverage. I thought Byron Moore looked a bit lost at times in the first half. He came back and was stellar in coverage after the break, but I was under the impression he made some coverage blunders. Then when I watched the Dooley Show and the game over again, I'm not sure that a couple of times a NCSU receiver ran unmolested down the seam that it was his fault. One play looked like Herman Lathers should have covered. Another big one appeared to be Prentiss Waggner's fault. Then, Dooley complimented Moore on his performance. Then today, Moore was named outright starter. So, so much for my analysis. Still, the Vols had some serious coverage issues in the first half -- whether it was the fault of the linebackers, safeties or corners. They adjusted late, but that can't happen in the SEC.
- A Couple Of Quizzical Coaching Decisions. Overall, I thought Dooley did a fine job. I'm being kind of nitpicky on a night when there weren't a lot of things to dissect. But I was frustrated that the Vols didn't call their timeout with the clock running down inside the 5 before halftime. Maybe that was personal preference. Then, the decision that I REALLY didn't agree with was going for it on fourth down rather than attempting a 44-yard field goal in a dome that would have put UT up by two touchdowns. It worries me that Dooley really doesn't trust Michael Palardy and that all the talk about his improvements may be lip service. Finally, [again just personal preference] but I want Jim Chaney to call run plays when we're in the red zone. I thought too many times we passed the ball in short-yardage situations, but, hey, it's obviously our strength. Again, I'm just picking nits. Overall, it was a good game.
- Killer Instinct. The Vols did a good job of playing a complete game, and yes, I know this was the first game of the season. But this one shouldn't have been as close as it ended up. Tennessee honestly should have won this game at least 49-21. They didn't capitalize on some situations and could never quite put them away. UT was much more than two scores better than this team, and if you ask me to point out specifics, I'll look to two instances: With UT up 22-7 in the third, the Vols failed to capitalize on fourth-and-1 from the Pack 30, and Glennon led NCSU to a touchdown to get them back in the game. Then, ahead 32-14, the Vols went "Retro-Mustang" in allowing another touchdown drive to keep things reasonably close. Kill-shot those opponents in those situations.
- Hunter's Drops. Again, we're just looked at the negative things. You want a perfect game. And it's really tough [and laughable] to trash a nine-catch game, so I'm not doing that. But Hunter dropped two almost sure touchdown catches, one on an orange-zone slant pass at the goal line and the other on a deep route where he'd beaten his man. I am still one of the believers that Hunter is leaps-and-bounds our best receiver, and I'll write it off as rust, but he has to make those plays against better teams.