It would be a bit of a stretch to call a Tennessee defense that allowed 401 yards to North Carolina State "impressive."
Oppressive would be more like it.
Though it wasn't always pretty, Sal Sunseri's new-look Volunteers defense was overwhelming when it had to be, pressuring Wolfpack star quarterback Mike Glennon, delivering devastating hits on NC State players and -- most importantly -- forcing four interceptions and a safety in a 35-21 season-opening win at the Chik-fil-A Kickoff Classic in Atlanta.
A year after Justin Wilcox's painfully conservative defense forced just 18 turnovers all season, UT got nearly a quarter of that against a fundamentally-sound offensive team with a senior quarterback who many expect to compete for All-ACC honors. They introduced Glennon to the SEC and exposed him for all his flaws.
While many old-school Tennessee fans are learning to take our medicine with this shotgun, pass-often style of offense, the other side of the football has endured just as drastic a cosmetic surgery this offseason.
A fair share of "no-no-no-YES!" plays occurred Friday night, and several times, a Wolfpack receiver would run unmolested down the seam to the tune of me flinging my hat clear across the room or slamming it to the floor. But in truth, this fast-and-frenetic defense looked exactly like coaches told us it would. There was plenty of organized chaos mixed with simple chaos. But the end result was fine. It was like when my wife whips up some sort of tasty casserole for her picky husband, and I ask, "What all's in here?" She just smiles and says, "Just eat it. You don't want to know."
I may not have exactly loved everything that went into the 21-point result, but in the end, the defense did exactly what it was designed to do -- rattled the opposing quarterback and forced him to make decisions he wouldn't have otherwise made. The Vols also had nine tackles for a loss, a sack and numerous quarterback hurries.
Keeping a high-octane offense to only three scores in the first game of not only adjusting to a 3-4 scheme but adapting to a whole new secondary philosophy isn't too shabby. Especially considering the opponent.
You simply cannot undersell the four interceptions by Glennon. This offseason, everybody in the country was tweeting and talking about how this 6-foot-6 kid had all the tools to be a dynamite pro player. After he shined at the Manning Passing Academy, following a junior season that included 31 touchdowns and just 12 interceptions, he was expecting to ride into the NFL with another banner season. That'll have to wait a week, at least. All night, I kept thinking, "If this defense is doing this to a guy like Glennon, it bodes well for playing against good quarterbacks like Aaron Murray and A.J. McCarron ... but it REALLY bodes well for going against unproven passers like Jeff Driskell and Connor Shaw."
So much can happen between now and those games, but if the defense is as opportunistic as it was last night, we're going to win some football games and have a good season. Here's a breakdown of the biggest defensive plays of the night:
- Glennon's first forced mistake came with NC State up 7-6 and driving in the world's longest first quarter. With the Pack all the way down on the UT 30 and threatening to open a little daylight between them and Vols, cornerback Prentiss Waggner disguised coverage and baited Glennon into throwing an ill-advised pass that he broke on and picked off. The interception swung momentum as it was immediately followed by Tyler Bray's 72-yard touchdown bomb to Zach Rogers.
- After a kickoff, Glennon was pressured by One-Man Havoc-Wreaker Curt Maggitt on the first play from scrimmage. Maggitt sacked him for a loss of 18 yards and forced a fumble that a State player recovered in the end zone for a Vols safety.
- The next interception was ill-advised by Glennon, but Byron Moore did a nice bait-job himself and picked off a lazy jump-ball over the center of the field and returned it 18 yards. Moore, who looked lost a lot of the night and really struggled in staying at home, settled in a bit in the second half, and Tennessee's defense was much different -- much better -- as a result.
- Next up, a player who should be UT's poster boy for this new defensive scheme -- junior "Star" nickelback Eric Gordon -- made a great bobbling interception, then turned it up field and scampered 12 yards. Gordon is just the type of player who can excel in this scheme. He is rarely fundamentally sound, struggles to understand coverage concepts but he is just a play-maker plain and simple. When Gordon is on the field, the only thing missing is flames coming from the back of his helmet because his hair on fire. He is a relentless pass-rusher, punishing hitter and has a knack for getting interceptions, despite his failures in consistency. He was another standout on a night where big plays ruled.
- At the end of the game, Marsalis Teague capped the turnover parade with an interception in the end zone when Glennon was just trying to conduct a miracle in the closing minutes.
There would be no miracles against UT's defense, though. For every frustratingly costly mistake the Vols made, they made up for it by forcing a back-breaking miscue from Glennon. Much like UT's offense did with All-American cornerback David Amerson, the Vols' defense made the Pack's offensive star look average-at-best, exploiting him for his weaknesses. It's the type of defense you want to have -- one that generates plenty of offensive possessions, even if it doesn't always look the greatest when it's on the field.
It ushered in a new era of a mistake-causing defense. What will happen when those mistakes don't come, you may ask? Well, we'll lose. It's bound to happen. It happens to every team transitioning to a new scheme, who doesn't have all the personnel yet to make it work on the field and doesn't have all the knowledge and depth to execute every play.
But when it works? We'll see exactly what we saw last night. We'll see turnovers forced, opponents frustrated, points galore and wins on the scoreboard. When you've got weapons like Bray, Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson, creating extra offensive possessions with defensive production equals wins.
They may allow more big plays than we're used to, and there will almost assuredly be games where they cost us wins. But they'll win games, too. How long has it been since we've had attacking group of players on that side of the ball?
Personally, I'll take the trade off and hop on this roller coaster ride every week with a smile on my face and my fingers crossed.