3 things we learned from Game 1

We learned several things from Tennessee's one-sided 35-18 victory over No. 9 California on Saturday night. One, the Vols offense played better than they practiced. Two, the defense is lightning fast. Three, outside of Southern Cal, the Pac-10 doesn't play a lick of defense.

On the third point, I should have known better. I watched and wondered why so many people liked Cal's defense. I saw the Bears play three games last year, and the defense underwhelmed me each time. I saw Brigham Young get 28 points and 446 yards in a bowl game. I saw UCLA score 47 points. And I saw Southern Cal win 35-10.

I also noticed that Washington State garnered 600 yards.

But I kept reading and hearing that Cal had all these All-Americans on defense, all these All-Pac-10 players on defense, all these NFL draft picks on defense. And Cal led the Pac-10 in scoring defense.

I couldn't get it to add up. If your personnel is that good, why are you allowing so many points and so many yards? Either you're poorly coached or your talent is overrated. Or both. It shouldn't have bought in – but I did.

It's easy to brush off Tennessee's victory as another example of how the Pac-10 is defense challenged. It was David Cutcliffe himself who said last year, while an analyst for Football Finals on The Sports Animal in Knoxville, that the Pac-10 doesn't play defense.

That comment did not come back to haunt him against the Bears. In fact, it proved prophetic.

I should have listened to Cutcliffe the commentator, not Cutcliffe the coach. Cutcliffe the coach said Cal had SEC speed on defense. Unless someone high-jacked their plane and inserted imposters from Cal State Poly, Cal-Berkeley does not have SEC speed on defense.

A beat writer for Cal told me you could beat the Bears with the deep pass. He wasn't sold on Cal's secondary. He was right.

Only, I wasn't sure if Tennessee could beat Cal deep. Erik Ainge hasn't been known as a good long-ball thrower and UT's receivers had trouble all of last season running and catching deep routes.

But we have seen a transformation in the UT offense. We've seen a transformation in Ainge. And we've seen a transformation in the UT receivers.

It's only one game, but what I saw out of Tennessee on Saturday was what I saw out of Notre Dame last year. Before Charlie Weis arrived, the Fighting Irish didn't appear to have play makers at receiver and the quarterback wasn't productive. Then came the emergence of quarterback Brady Quinn and two top-flight receivers, Jeff Smardzija and Maurice Stovall. Those two combined for one touchdown catch in 2004, but 26 in 2005. The Irish had weapons, they just did a good job of hiding them until Weis arrived.

Tennessee had weapons last year. The Vols just did a good job of hiding them until Cutcliffe arrived. You couldn't tell Robert Meachem and Jayson Swain and Bret Smith had big-play ability in part because they weren't well coached, and in part because UT didn't get the ball to them.

But you saw what Meachem (five catches for 182 yards) could do when put in the right situation. You saw what Swain could do. And you'll see more as the season progresses.

Amid second-guessing, I had enough faith in Cutcliffe to predict UT would score 27 points against Cal. I just didn't know he would do it less than five minutes into the second half. He had 35 points in just over 36 minutes before he shut it down.

Cutcliffe admitted UT executed on offense better than it had practiced, but he also noted it isn't easy piling up yards against UT's defense. He felt the offense was making strides with each practice.

``By the time we hit Thursday of game week, I thought we were a pretty good offensive team,'' Cutcliffe said.

Cutcliffe's goal was to make Cal defend the entire field.

``They just didn't have an answer,'' Cutcliffe said.

One of the most encouraging aspects of the win was Ainge. Not only did he have career highs for touchdowns (four) and passing yards (291), he rebounded well from throwing a second-quarter interception to lead four more touchdown drives.

``I asked him if he had trouble seeing because it was a crossing route,'' Cutcliffe said of the Ainge pass that tipped the fingers of receiver Lucas Taylor. ``He said, `No, I just threw a bad ball.' Sometimes, we throw bad balls and that's OK. I'd rather hear that than a reason why.''

While Tennessee's offense was clicking as no one expected, the defense didn't appear to miss six starters from the front seven.

Defensive tackle Matt McGlothlin, a former walk-on, said John Chavis' unit was ready to go when Cal won the toss and elected to receive, putting Tennessee's defense on the field first.

``I was ready to go,'' McGlothlin said. ``I thought that was real disrespectful. We said, `Let's go do this. Let's go prove it to the world.'''

Asked if he was surprised the Vols led 35-0, McGlothlin had a surprising answer.

``Not really, not at all,'' he said. ``I figured it would be worse than that. Not because I underrated Cal, but the way we came out. We kind of took the will from them. You could tell just in their eyes.''

Tennessee also reclaimed home field advantage, beating a top 10 team at home for the first time since 1999.

``I think people will be more fearful coming into Neyland Stadium,'' McGlothlin said. ``We got our respect back.''


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