ATLANTA -- By the time the first quarter finally came to an end Friday night, Derek Dooley thought it was halftime.
The quarter, which lasted more than an hour and a half, was that long and that exhausting for Tennessee’s coach.
That type of fatigue from a coach usually means his team is just as tired, or worse. But not Friday.
For a team that could barely make it through a full game in 2011, Tennessee pushed through like Dooley had never seen, and the Vols cruised to a 35-21 victory over NC State in Game 1 of the Chick-fil-A Kickoff inside the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
A first quarter such as Friday’s would have sent last season’s Vols into rollover mode, but this team was different. After jumping ahead 22-7 in the first quarter, Tennessee was able to hold on to and build on its lead in front of the announced crowd of 55,529.
Even when the mistakes came and NC State cut Tennessee’s lead to eight before halftime, the Vols rallied to control the second half, thanks to some grit and some much-needed depth.
“That was a good step for our team,” Dooley said. “I said this at the beginning of the year: We’re going to have to learn how to grit through four quarters of football. We’re going to be in a lot of games this year, and that was a good start. I was proud of them.”
The first quarter was full of explosive plays from the Vols and featured a stretch in which they scored 16 points in 38 seconds. But the second was sloppy. NC State rushed back with a 67-yard touchdown drive, while Tennessee punted twice and saw its final drive end with quarterback Tyler Bray fumbling at the goal line on a quarterback sneak.
You could feel the momentum shift as both teams went into the locker rooms, but Tennessee adjusted, physically and mentally.
The staff rotated bodies all night to keep guys fresh, and it showed in the second half. The offensive line saw seven to maybe eight players get in. Three running backs played, with third-teamer Marlin Lane leading all ball carriers with 75 yards, including a long of 42, on nine attempts.
Tennessee threw as many defenders as it could out on the field, not just to keep guys fresh but because it had the bodies and talent to do it. For once in Dooley’s Tennessee life, depth wasn’t an issue, and it powered the Vols in the second half.
Wide receiver Justin Hunter, who played in his first game since tearing his anterior cruciate ligament early last season, said he hadn’t seen a Tennessee team play like the Vols did in the second half.
“Playing for 60 minutes was a problem that we used to have in the past,” said Hunter, who caught a game-high nine passes and had 73 receiving yards. “For us to come out here in a big environment and play for 60 minutes like this, I think we did great.”
Just look at third downs. Tennessee was 3-of-9 on them in the first half but was 6-of-10 in the second. That’s how you win games and that’s how you tire out opponents.
“Rotating running backs, linemen and receivers is going to keep fresh legs,” Lane said. “With this fast-paced offense, we’re going to keep wearing defenses down. With fresh legs on the field and a tired defense, it’s going to be [some] pretty great offensive drives that we can sustain.”
It also helps when you have a thoroughbred alongside Hunter at receiver. Junior-college transfer Cordarrelle Patterson more than made up for the loss of Da’Rick Rogers by having a true breakout game. He absolutely burned All-American corner David Amerson on a bump-and-go for his first touchdown -- a 41-yarder -- and shook/sprinted past the entire Wolfpack defense on a 67-yard touchdown run.
He finished the night with 165 total yards and two touchdowns on eight touches. Quite the opening night for someone Dooley didn’t think totally grasped the playbook.
“I’m not sure he ran the right route,” Dooley said. “That’s the beauty of Bray: He don’t care; he’s gonna let it fly. That pretty much summed it up. Run the wrong route, Bray rewards him, touchdown.”
But somehow he found a way, just like the rest of Dooley’s football team Friday. And when Patterson was shut down in the second half, the Vols tried to grind it out or Bray found other targets. There always seemed to be options.
The defense did its job by abusing the Wolfpack up front, with its revamped -- and much more intimidating -- image. As the Vols pressed, NC State quarterback Mike Glennon flinched and threw his way to three second-half interceptions.
It seemed like every other play, someone else -- starter or not -- was making a big play on defense for the Vols.
Tennessee wasn’t perfect but it was solid. Now, it’s time to build off Friday’s transformation.
“It’s one game,” Dooley said. “All that matters is we’re 1-0. We have to go clean up a ton of mistakes and go on to the next week and get focused on the next week. It really doesn’t mean anything other than we won the first game.”