Tennessee led 17-16 after two quarters, but the Vols weren't running well, weren't stopping the run well and were giving up too many big plays to the Southern Miss offense. And there was still the issue of covering kickoffs.
But in the second half, it was a different story – a very different story.
Tennessee shut down the run, held USM to 108 second-half yards (after surrendering 246 in the first half), put pressure on the quarterback and controlled the line of scrimmage with 151 second-half rushing yards.
After a shaky start, it added up to a comfortable 39-19 victory, giving Fulmer his 14th season-opening win in 15 tries.
Tennessee's offense seemed to settle into a rhythm late in the first half and carried that into the second half.
``They were giving us a lot of different looks,'' Fulmer said of the Eagles' defense. ``And it took us a while to settle down.''
Once UT settled down, it ripped through USM for 469 total yards. Erik Ainge was sharp again, hitting 23 of 36 passes for 276 yards and two scores. Austin Rogers had seven catches for 112 yards – all in the first half. Lucas Taylor added five catches for 118 yards – his second straight 100-yard game. And Arian Foster racked up 125 yards on 23 carries.
``It was real difficult to get started,'' offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe said. ``They were in a lot of places. We kind of expected that to happen.''
But once Cutcliffe and Ainge honed in, the Vols picked apart a defense that returned nine starters and held nine opponents to 20 or fewer points last season.
The Vols scored a touchdown before the half for a one-point lead, then scored on four of the first five possessions in the second half.
``We had the momentum going in at halftime,'' Fulmer said.
Even with the momentum, Cutcliffe was concerned about UT's run game.
``We had a good meeting at halftime,'' Cutcliffe said. ``I thought we made good adjustments. We felt we could get in our three-wide set and find a way to run the ball. Erik did a really good job of that.''
While the offense settled in, the defense put the clamps on USM's offense, except for a 19-play drive that resulted in a field goal – the Eagles' only score of the second half. The Eagles had 18 rushing yards in the second half.
``Really didn't make any adjustments,'' said secondary coach Larry Slade. ``We just didn't give up very many big plays. Make them earn everything they're getting.
``It was just going out there and playing as a unit, as a team. You give up a big play and you have to keep rallying and being fundamentally sound, attacking people and being aggressive. And I think they grew up.''
They had to grow up after losing cornerback Antonio Gaines to a ``significant'' knee injury with about 10 minutes left in the second quarter. Gaines didn't return and Fulmer said he didn't know when Gaines might be back.
With Gaines sidelined, the Vols moved starting strong safety Eric Berry back to cornerback and inserted Jarod Parrish, the first-game starter, into the lineup. The Vols also used Ricardo Kemp in the nickel package.
``It's great to have an Eric Berry who can play either (safety or corner),'' Slade said. ``It was great to have a Jason Allen. It's great to have those kind of guys who are flexible. Eric is one of those guys. We're blessed to have a guy like that.''
Slade was pleased with the way the secondary adjusted without Gaines.
``I thought we played well in the second half,'' Slade said. ``I thought they grew up. I like the way we competed and kept playing.''
``I'm glad to get the win,'' Fulmer said. ``Southern Miss will have a great season. They have a good-looking team.''
Tennessee had a better-looking team in the second half.
But was that performance good enough to beat Florida in The Swamp?
That remains to be seen.
It could go a long way in determining whether Fulmer can win another SEC championship.
At least the second half made the media member second-guess himself.