Based on sacks (1) and hurries (0), Tennessee's pass rush was a non-factor in the opener versus North Carolina State. Based on havoc wreaked, however, it may have been the difference in the game. Vol defenders hit Wolfpack quarterback Mike Glennon a dozen times, ultimately forcing him to throw four interceptions and cough up a fumble that resulted in a safety as the Big Orange rolled 35-21.
Bottom line: Tennessee's pass rush was a lot more productive than the stat sheet suggests.
"It had a lot of impact," defensive lineman Maurice Couch said. "We were sending blitzes from everywhere. We didn't want him sitting in the pocket and being comfortable. Just from watching film, if he's on the run or (pressured), he doesn't do a good job of throwing the ball. Even if you get him off his edge just a little bit, we know we did our job and took some pressure off the back end (secondary)."
Derek Dooley thought the picks provided the winning edge as Tennessee won the turnover battle 4-1.
"Turnovers obviously were the huge difference," Tennessee's head man said. "We had four but we also had that safety (off a forced fumble), so we were really plus-4 in the turnover ratio."
Because Glennon is a savvy senior who did a good job of unloading, linebacker Curt Maggitt registered Tennessee's only sack of Game 1. Still, the Vol front seven pressured Glennon enough to disrupt his rhythm, and that was Dooley's top priority.
"That was my number one thing in hiring (new defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri) ... disrupting an offense," the head man said. "Offenses are hard to stop. If you just sit there and react to what they do all the time it's tough. You've got to do things to try and create plays in a game, and our guys did a good job with that."
Because the front seven was getting pressure and disrupting Glennon's timing, Tennessee's secondary rarely was forced to cover receivers for significant periods of time.
"Our guys are playing with a lot more confidence in the back end," Dooley said. "We got torched a lot last year back there. Now we're putting our hands on guys. We made some good picks and we hit the quarterback. We've just got to keep doing it."
Sunseri has installed a much more aggressive defensive scheme in his first year as coordinator. The front seven is doing more blitzing and the safeties are crowding the line of scrimmage. As a result, safeties Byron Moore and Brian Randolph topped the Game 1 tackle chart with eight stops each. Moore also recorded one of the Vols' four interceptions.
"That's part of our new aggressive style of defense," Moore said. "Applying pressure is going to be the main thing we do. We feel like if our front seven gets back there and pressures the quarterback that quarterback's going to start trying to get the ball out of his hand quicker. That's going to allow us to make plays on bad throws, like we did."
Glennon passed for 208 yards in the first half but was hit 10 times. The shots clearly took a toll, as he passed for just 80 yards in the second half and threw three of his four interceptions after the break.
"I think we hit the quarterback 12 times, and that's great," Moore said. "Any time you hit the quarterback that many times it's definitely going to affect him. He was starting to throw balls quicker as the game went on because he didn't want to get hit. It definitely helps us on the back end when we've got the front seven playing like that."
After forcing just 18 turnovers in 2011, Tennessee is on pace to force 48 in 2012. Moore isn't surprised.
"There's definitely a big emphasis on getting a touchdown on defense or getting the ball back to our offense (via take-away)," he said. "That's a real big emphasis. We play a lot of man coverage, so there's going to be a lot of one-on-one matchups, so it's up to you to make the plays. We love the new defense, and we're looking forward to playing it all season."
As often happens in Game 1, Tennessee was guilty of some costly alignment and assignment busts. North Carolina State parlayed four of these into first-half pass plays of 49, 28, 32 and 32 yards
"We probably gave up three big plays that were all about pre-snap discipline," Dooley said. "Before the ball is even turned over we're screwed up."
Tennessee tightened the screws at halftime, however, and did not allow a completion of more than 11 yards thereafter. Moore said the improved pass defense could be credited to "Just mainly calming down, settling in."
Limiting a quarterback of Glennon's caliber to 80 second-half passing yards was quite an accomplishment.
"It was like the culmination of our summer workouts going into that first game, being able to play fast and play the way we did," Moore said. "It was fun and exciting, and we're looking for it to carry over into this week."
This week finds the Vols playing Georgia State in the home opener. Tennessee's defenders can't wait to see what Sunseri has planned for Game 2.
"We love his play-calling," Moore said. "He's going to apply the pressure. He'll send anybody from anywhere, and that makes it more fun when we're out there."
Tennessee's pressure-packed approach isn't nearly so fun for opposing quarterbacks. Ask Mike Glennon.