"They played a lot of three-deep," Vol offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe said. "They played very, very safe. They just felt if they keep everything in front of them, we won't execute and go down the field and score."
The ploy worked. Throwing mostly underneath, Vol quarterback Erik Ainge completed a career-high 32 passes. Still, Cal had enough offensive firepower to post a 45-31 triumph.
"Had we executed – or had I executed – we should've scored a lot of points," Cutcliffe noted. "We didn't, so I guess the gamble paid off."
Game 2 foe Southern Miss does not have Cal-type firepower, so the Golden Eagles likely will adopt a totally different strategy Saturday night at Neyland Stadium. Rather than concede some short passes to protect against the big play, they may crowd the line of scrimmage and dare Tennessee to go deep.
"Cal gave us a lot of underneath stuff, and we did that (took the short gains) well," said senior tight end Chris Brown, who caught seven balls vs. the Golden Bears. "I think teams are going to see that and do some things to try and make us feel uncomfortable."
Since Ainge has a broken finger and a bunch of unproven receivers, it's obvious what might make the Vols "uncomfortable" in the weeks ahead.
"I think teams will try to force us to go down the field more," Brown said.
Whether the Vols can do that successfully remains to be seen. Most of their deep threats are first-year receivers who have yet to prove themselves dependable.
"We have a lot of young receivers who didn't get the opportunity to play (vs. Cal) because they're not ready to play at this level yet," Brown said. "We have to start throwing those guys in the mix and get them ready to play."
The problem is, young receivers made some mistakes that proved costly in the opener. Of course, some of Tennessee's veterans made a few foul-ups, too.
"There were some mental mistakes, people doing some things they didn't need to do," Brown conceded. "We scored a lot of points and did a lot of good things but we need to get rid of the little bad things we did because that's the things that hurt us in the game."
Specifically, Brown said the Vols had "a couple of protection-related busts and a couple of guys running the wrong routes. I think it was people messing up the signals, getting routes confused."
Cal's defensive game plan was built on the premise that Tennessee would make enough of these type mistakes to stop itself if the Vols were forced to put together 10- and 12-play drives.
Although he'd like to see Tennessee pop some big plays, Brown says going the long way can be rewarding.
"It's hard but it's a fun thing to be able to actually see the defense wearing down as you're driving the ball," he said. "Ten- and 11-play drives are hard to do because you have to stay mentally focused. We executed well at some points and at some points we didn't execute."
If the Vols execute well vs. Southern Miss, the result could be some very big plays.