TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — You would have thought that the game was on the line. The crowd was into it, the defense was playing like it was mad and the cigar smell was already overpowering Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Yet despite being ahead by 31 points in the fourth quarter, Alabama wasn’t ready to give anything else up. Another botched punt return had given Tennessee the ball in the red zone, and the subsequent third-and-goal from the 1 brought back some unfavorable memories from the end of last season.
“We basically went back to Clemson and we wanted to stop them on the goal line,” senior linebacker Rashaan Evans said. “We wanted to do a great job of finishing.”
It did. With a false-start penalty backing the Volunteers up and a fourth-down desperation pass over the middle intercepted by sophomore Mack Wilson, the defense made its stand to lead a 45-7 victory.
It was exactly what Nick Saban had wanted to see — along with the haze that soon covered campus that’s smoke-free the other 364 days of the year.
“That probably speaks a lot to what this game means and what this rivalry is,” Saban said of the goal-line stand. “There was lot of pride going on out there.”
Now he just needs to get the offense to match that intensity and consistency.
As expected, Alabama easily won the Third Saturday in October for the 11th straight year, but the overall performance reflected just where this team is eight games into the season.
Overall, the No. 1 Crimson Tide outgained the Volunteers 604-108, averaging 7.0 yards per play compared to 2.3 allowed (10.1 and 2.8 in the air, respectively). The Alabama defense tallied 9 tackles for a loss including 4 sacks and 8 quarterback hurries, while Tennessee converted just one third-down opportunity in 12 tries.
Coming in, Tennessee running back John Kelly led the SEC in all-purpose yards and yards from scrimmage (133.7). He was limited to 63 rushing yards, 33 on two draw plays, and 5 receiving.
The Vols’ longest passing play was for just 12 yards as quarterback Jarrett Guarantano took numerous hard hits, including on the last play of the first half when his helmet went flying.
— Timothy Burke (@bubbaprog) October 21, 2017
“You could see that we were doing everything we could to get him to scramble, or throw a bad pass,” Evans said.
Having given up just 38 points in five SEC games, the defense looks like it’s ready to match up against anyone.
At least it does on paper. Alabama was facing its third straight freshman quarterback.
Meanwhile, Tennessee’s passing defense led the SEC by yielding just 129.2 yards per game, but the Vols’ rushing defense was the league’s worst.
Alabama ran for 272 yards and passed for 332, but wasn’t pleased with its performance, especially in the first half. Even sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts called the offense “sloppy” and “sluggish” during a very odd first half.
After Alabama went 63 yards on 12 plays on its opening possession, the passing game fell out of sync, including during one of the most bizarre possessions of the season.
Up 7-0, Alabama had third-and-13 at the Tennessee 43 when Hurts found an open Irv Smith across the middle, only to have the tight end lose the ball and fumble through the end zone for an apparent touchback.
Only it wasn’t. Defensive end Jonathan Kongbo, who hasn’t lived up to his billing as a top junior-college prospect, was called for a blatant personal foul for hands to the face that not only nullified the fumble (if the defense commits a penalty at any point up until it has possession, then the ball stays with the offense), but gave Alabama the first down at the 2-yard line.
Two penalties and numerous plays later, Alabama scored the exact same way as its initial drive, inserting defensive lineman Da’Ron Payne as a fullback and calling for junior running back Bo Scarbrough over the top from the 1.
With fans on both sides confused from the odd sequence, Alabama had a 14-0 lead following the 15-play, 85-yard touchdown drive and then quickly scored again (with Kongbo committing the same infraction against Crimson Tide left tackle Jonah Williams) to take a commanding 21-0 halftime lead.
“The whole idea was to come there with intensity, do our jobs and do it with some fire in our eyes,” said Hurts, who finished 13 for 21 for 198 yards, 1 touchdown and no turnovers. When he led a precise up-tempo drive for another touchdown to open the second half, Saban had seen enough and pulled him in favor of Tua Tagovailoa.
The left-hander completed his first 4 passes and had Alabama knocking on the door for another score when the freshman made a mistake over the middle, with linebacker Daniel Bituli returning the interception 97-yards to score the Volunteers’ first touchdown since facing UMass on Sept. 23.
“Tua had that same face that I had,” said Hurts, comparing it to his fumble on his very first play against Southern California last year. “That’s a good thing.”
Regardless, while Tennessee’s offense didn’t score, again, the Crimson Tide offense was left kicking itself for its inconsistency. The difference demonstrated just how far apart these programs have become, in addition to the Alabama players saying they were already telling themselves before halftime what Saban told them during the break, that they had to play better.
“To be honest I think we’re probably playing at a five or a six,” Scarbrough said about offense’s execution on a scale of 10. “We can be way better than we are right now.”
If it finds a way to be, every other team’s national championship hopes might go up in smoke.
Light em up!!! 11 in a row and counting 🤷🏾♂️ pic.twitter.com/DxDEmAjgJV
— Shaun Dion Hamilton (@shaundion11) October 22, 2017