Jermain Defoe’s hat-trick helped Sunderland secure their place in the Capital One Cup third round, despite making things unnecessarily hard for themselves against League Two Exeter City.
Dick Advocaat’s side triumphed 6-3 in a nine-goal thriller at the Stadium of Light, even though some woeful defending gave Exeter hopes of causing a cup upset.
Early goals from Jack Rodwell and Defoe put Sunderland in pole position to cruise into the next round, but Exeter drew level thanks to goals from Emmanuele Oyeleke and David Wheeler.
Defoe’s second was then cancelled out by another equaliser from Tom McCready, as Sunderland went into half-time locked at 3-3.
But when Rodwell headed Sunderland back in front just after the hour mark, the hosts took control, with Duncan Watmore adding a fifth, before Defoe secured the match ball.
Summer signing Adam Matthews made his first Sunderland start as one of two expected changes to the starting XI, with Seb Larsson coming in for the injured Jeremain Lens.
It took Sunderland just 12 minutes to break the deadlock after Defoe played a lovely ball inside right-back Danny Butterfield for Patrick van Aanholt to race onto.
Van Aanholt pulled the ball back to Danny Graham eight yards out, whose shot was blocked, but Rodwell latched onto the rebound to smash it low into the net.
Three minutes later, Sunderland doubled the advantage with Rodwell playing a lovely ball over the top for Defoe to chase onto.
Defoe chipped the ball forwards, but as goalkeeper Bobby Olejnik hesitated, the striker was allowed to go around him, steady himself and then smash it into the net.
But the Grecians pulled a goal back in the 19th minute when Sebastian Coates was day-dreaming to Butterfield’s ball forwards and Emmanuel Oyeleke got in behind him, before beating Costel Pantilimon.
Exeter then equalised in the 32nd minute when Butterfield played a lovely ball to pick out Lee Holmes in space on the left flank.
Holmes crossed to the back post, where David Wheeler got above John O’Shea - albeit with a hint of a foul - and headed past the static Pantilimon.
However, Sunderland regained the advantage seven minutes before the interval when Lee Cattermole picked out the excellent darting run inside from Defoe.
The 32-year-old brought it under control immaculately, before beating Olejnik with a half-volley at the near post.
But two minutes before the interval, Exeter again profited some appalling Sunderland defending to draw level after the Black Cats were unable to deal with Holmes’ looping cross from the left.
Wheeler was allowed to knock it down, before Tom McCready swept the ball beyond Pantilimon.
Steven Fletcher replaced Graham at the interval, but he lasted just eight minutes before coming off with concussion.
Advocaat was then forced into another change, as Matthews limped off with an ankle injury and Lynden Gooch was brought on for his debut.
Sunderland regained the advantage in the 63rd minute in straightforward fashion, when Larsson’s corner from the left was headed in at the back post by Rodwell.
This time, there was to be no great comeback from Exeter, with Watmore restoring Sunderland’s two-goal advantage with 12 minutes to go.
Watmore chased a lost cause to O’Shea’s ball forwards, got to it ahead of Olejnik, before knocking it into the empty net.
Rodwell was then inches away from a hat-trick when he collected Watmore’s lay-off and saw his shot towards the far corner deflected just past the post.
In the 84th minute, Defoe was denied his own treble when he was denied by Olejnik’s save from six yards out, when he really should have scored.
But Defoe wasn’t to be denied and with three minutes to go, he grabbed his hat-trick when he scuffed home Larsson’s right wing cross.
Sunderland: Pantilimon, Matthews (Gooch 58), O’Shea, Coates, van Aanholt, Cattermole, Rodwell, M’Vila, Larsson, Defoe, Graham (Fletcher 46, Watmore 54). Subs not used: Stryjek, Brown, Giaccherini, J Robson.
Exeter: Olejnik, Butterfield, Noble (Morrison 67), McAllister, Holmes (Grant 75), Davies, Oyeleke, Wheeler (Hoskins 75), McCready, Tillson, Brown. Subs not used: Hamon, Woodman, Oakley, Nicholls.