ATLANTA — Tennessee's defense showed both the good and bad of its ultimate objectives Friday night.
It's the risk and reward of playing a more aggressive style.
Under first-year coordinator Sal Sunseri, the Volunteers mixed gaping holes in the secondary early with timely plays in Tennessee's 35-21 win over North Carolina State in the Georgia Dome.
"I thought we hit the quarterback a lot," coach Derek Dooley said. "I don't know how many times we knocked him down, and four interceptions. This guy's going to get yards, and we knew it. You can't get frustrated.
"We were giving them some chunks, but over time, if you keep hitting them, it's going to affect them. We had five turnovers and a safety. That's what I'm talking about, and that's huge."
After UT allowed 16 pass plays of 25 or more yards last season, N.C. State hit on passes of 49, 28 and 31 yards in the fourth quarter alone. Quintin Payton got behind Prentiss Waggner on an apparent blown coverage on the Wolfpack's second possession, and quarterback Mike Glennon hit 6-foot-4 tight end Asa Watson twice over the middle.
But Tennessee's defense settled in, fixed its communication issues and answered later in the game with three second-half interceptions.
"We play a lot of man-to-man coverage," Waggner said. "We know we're going to give up some big plays here and there. The main key is to make more plays than they make, and I think today we did that."
On a fourth-and-3 play from Tennessee's 35, Waggner picked off Glennon's short throw. Byron Moore and Eric Gordon's second-half pickoffs killed any N.C. State comeback attempts, and Marsalis Teague put the cherry on top with one in the game's waning seconds.
The Vols had four interceptions Friday night after picking off just nine passes last season.
"Just communication breakdowns added onto first-game jitters," Moore said. "We had to slow down, calm down, relax and just play our game. As the game went on, our communication got better, and our coaches were putting us in the right calls all game."
Antonio "Tiny" Richardson's first collegiate start went a little rougher than the 6-6, 332-pound sophomore might have hoped. He was flagged for a false start before the game's first play, and Tennessee punted after three plays. He had another later in the first half.
But the Vols have depth up front now and used it during one first-half possession. Dallas Thomas, a fifth-year senior who started 25 games at left tackle in 2010 and 2011 and switched to guard to accommodate for Richardson, moved back to tackle. Sophomore Marcus Jackson entered the game at left guard.
That was hardly Tennessee's most creative switch of the game. Junior Alex Bullard, who left spring practice as the Vols' starting center and lost his job to James Stone over the summer, played as a sixth offensive lineman. With Mychal Rivera and Ben Bartholomew as the lone tight ends with experience on the roster, the Vols used Bullard on formations with unbalanced lines.
The Vols had shown no indication of the move and even disguised Bullard, who normally wears No. 78, in a nameless No. 88 jersey.
Justin Hunter's long-awaited return got off to a slow start, but the Vols' star wideout made his impact during a key-third quarter drive.
Eleven months and two weeks after crumpling to the turf with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, the junior finished Friday night's game with 73 yards on nine catches.
"I was just amazed to be back out there," he said. "The ball just came to me more. I had to make plays every time they threw it to me."
Hunter made three catches, including two first-down grabs on third down, during the Vols' third-quarter drive that increased their lead to 29-14. Hunter' first catch didn't come until Tennessee's third possession. Always a big-play threat, Hunter worked as more of an underneath receiver and made catches on crosses, slants and quick throws.
"It was harder to hit the intermediate routes on these guys, and we hit two shots," Dooley said. "We're not going to throw the long ball every play, but he made some really big third-down catches. I thought the second half, our third downs ... we were 60 percent on third down in the second half, and we were three of nine in the first, and a lot of that was Justin."
Linebacker Herman Lathers, arguably the Vols' most important defensive player, injured his shoulder during N.C. State's opening second-half possession. The fifth-year senior was playing his in his first game since 2010 after missing all of last season with a fractured ankle. Lathers missed time during preseason practice while he nursed a strained quadriceps.
Backup Dontavis Sapp stepped in and played admirably in Lathers' absence. The junior made a big blindside hit on Glennon and tackled a running back for a 4-yard loss on a screen. The Vols are short on depth at inside linebacker, but Sapp responded with Tennessee in a tight spot.
Tennessee burned its first first-half timeout with 10:56 left in the first quarter because it had 12 players on the field before a defensive play. ... The Vols' 22 first-quarter points were their most in an opening frame since a 35-point quarter against Arkansas in 2000. Tennessee did it in just 4:46 of possession. N.C. State ran 26 opening-quarter plays to Tennessee's 15. ... Tennessee's 348 first-half yards were more than the Vols had in seven complete games in 2011. ... Flanked by his two sons, former Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl was a hit with Vols fans in the club level. The popular coach, who will being work as an analyst for ESPN this basketball season, was taking pictures with numerous fans before kickoff. Current Vols coach Cuonzo Martin also was in attendance.
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 ...