ATLANTA — Tennessee football coach Derek Dooley took a tumble as his team ran out of the Georgia Dome tunnel Friday night.
The Volunteers' head man popped right back up, delivered an emphatic fist pump and extolled his already fired-up team.
The coach's tumble was not an omen for the Vols' night.
Tennessee made a 15-point first-quarter lead hold up with a strong third-quarter showing in a 35-21 win against North Carolina State. It opened Dooley's third season in style and erased any lingering memories of last season's 5-7 debacle.
"The whole team mindset was great coming in," said tailback Marlin Lane, who ran for 75 yards on nine carries. "Even in the second half, we had way more energy than we had in the first half. We just wanted to go out there and keep racking up points."
After the offseason talk from national media pundits about Dooley's job security and players on bringing the downtrodden program back, Tennessee did enough to start a new season feeling good.
The Vols still have big-play ability on offense, even without departed receiver Da'Rick Rogers. Tennessee's new-look defense, though gashed at times, created four takeaways and scored a safety. And perhaps the best sign is how Tennessee answered the Wolfpack's surges.
"We had a lot [of adversity] in the first half," Dooley said. "A fourth-and-1 we can't convert, then we try to pull it away at the end and screw up a quarterback sneak. But you know what, that was a good step for our team."
After N.C. State scored to pull with 22-14 in the second quarter, Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray methodically led his team down the field, only to fumble as he reached the football over a pile trying to break the plane of the end zone.
After its defense came up with a stop on the Wolfpack's opening second-half possession, Tennessee did something it couldn't do last season: score in the third quarter. Tennessee did it in 14 plays, going 87 yards, eating up six minutes and converting four third downs, and Rajion Neal's 8-yard plunge made it 29-14.
"It shows this team's maturity," Bray said. "Last year we might have caved and given up a few points, but we came out and stopped them. We answered back by scoring a touchdown."
Much earlier, it appeared Friday night would be the Cordarrelle Patterson Show. The smooth 6-foot-3 junior college transfer had 129 yards of offense on four touches. After arriving to Knoxville in July, Patterson had to hit the film room and make the most of his practices, especially when Rogers left the program a week ago.
"It was a lot of pressure," Patterson said, "because Da'Rick was a heck of a player. I knew people were looking to me fill in his place. I'm just me."
Patterson's dazzling debut began with a modest 9-yard reception in the game's opening play, but his next one was much more impressive. He simply outran David Amerson, the Wolfpack's junior All-America cornerback, and hauled in a perfectly thrown ball from Bray for a 41-yard score.
"He showed that he's big and fast and can catch," Dooley said. "He's showed what we'd been saying. Not sure if he ran the right route, but that's the beauty of Bray. He don't care -- he's going to let it fly. That pretty much summed it up."
Later in the quarter, Patterson, who ran a 10.3-second 100-yard dash last year, took a simple handoff on a reverse, ran to the edge and cut all the way back across the field on a 67-yard sprint in which he outran Amerson to the end zone.
"I hadn't envisioned nothing," Patterson said. "I just came out here and made sure I caught the ball and ran everything right. The touchdowns came, so that was pretty awesome."
Bray, who finished 27-of-41 passing for 322 yards and two touchdowns, said earlier in the week the Vols would go after Amerson, and Tennessee did. In addition to Patterson's plays, Zach Rogers beat the 6-foot-3, 194-pounder on a deep scoring bomb. Amerson didn't make the impact he did in 2011, when he led the country with 13 interceptions.
Tennessee picked off four passes from N.C. State quarterback Mike Glennon and hit the fifth-year senior a number of other times, including Curt Maggitt's sack that turned into a safety.
"It's one game," Dooley said. "I already know you guys are going to say, 'We're there; we're on our way.' It's one game. All it matters is we're 1-0. We have to go clean up a ton of mistakes."
Mistakes or not, the win was much needed for Tennessee's program.
"It feels great," safety Brian Randolph said. "The last time we played was against Kentucky [last November], and this is all we worked hard for all summer. This feels great but we still have another game."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...