TUSCALOOSA, ALA. – They gathered all the nightmares of this awkward, pubescent Georgia season onto one field Saturday afternoon.
Take the Alabama defense that turned any given Bulldog quarterback into marmalade. Add the Tennessee unbroken heart – the resilient organ of a team that already had lost in enough painful ways that it had nothing left to lose by the time it met Georgia.
The resulting match-up was a thing of, if not exactly beauty, at least a very serviceable competitive charm.
As expected, Alabama beat Tennessee Saturday. Alabama always beats Tennessee these days. That may even be a part of the state motto by now, in small print, right under “We Dare Defend Our Rights.”
But this time the 19-14 verdict was in doubt until the minute or so, when, apropos of what ‘Bama does best, its defense pried the ball from the quarterback’s grasp and claimed it like a spoil of war.
With its ninth straight victory over the Vols, Alabama survived and advanced. As a once-beaten, its every game is a referendum on its annual national championship ambitions. The 2015 edition is not so proud that it can fail to appreciate simple survival. It is not good enough to sniff at a mere five-point victory over a two-touchdown underdog.
What Saturday showed was an Alabama dynasty with bags under its eyes. This was a tuckered team in need of the upcoming bye week before an even larger game with LSU.
“We were tired out there today, dead-legged, didn’t look very quick, very fast,” Tide coach Nick Saban said. “We didn’t have energy like we usually do. I think you can say that’s from playing eight games in a row.”
The teams left the field with the happy ‘Bama home crowd chanting to the vanquished: “We just beat the hell out of you!” Part of that was tradition. And part was due to the fact that “We’re just happy to get out of here with our record and our oversized sense of self-importance intact!” didn’t exactly conform to a catchy cadence.
This was not the Alabama that overwhelmed Georgia on the first Saturday of October. This was the just-good-enough-when-it-had-to-be version that rationed its skill for the game’s last five minutes.
It was, however, much the same Tennessee that rallied from 21 down to beat the Bulldogs two weeks ago. Evident was a similarly effective kind of what-the-heck attitude, matched with a desire to keep on playing hard even after disappointment sublet the first third of its season.
The three missed field goals by the Vols would have come in mighty handy in this one, but this was no time to place too much weight on a kicker on scholarship, not on the payroll. Two of Aaron Medley’s misses were from 51 yards out.
“Our time will come,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said afterward. And it may indeed come, sometime before the sun burns out, if the Vols can bottle at least the attitude they’ve shown these last few weeks.
This time, Tennessee was matched against an opponent that had the goods to make a big catch when it had to, or issue a defensive denial at the moment it was most needed.
‘Bama trailed 14-13 with 5:49 left, having just watched the good version of Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs take the Vols 75 yards in just four plays. Nobody’s supposed to be able to do that to Alabama, and in the context of this game, that lightning strike was a weird mutation. But it still counted.
On the ensuing eight-play, 71-yard drive to win, the Tide relied on two clutch catches on jump-ball passes, the first of 29 yards to ArDarius Stewart and the other of 15 yards to Calvin Ridley.
Down at the Tennessee 19, with three minutes left, in timeout, Saban and the former Vols coach who now coordinates the ‘Bama offense, the visored Lane Kiffin, huddled with the offense. A genius plan was hatched: Let’s hand the ball to Derrick Henry. Two carries later by SEC’s second leading rusher – who finished Saturday with 143 yards – and Alabama had regained the lead.
Said lead was not set in granite until the second consecutive sack of Dobbs, by linebacker Ryan Anderson, dislodged the ball. Defensive end A’Shawn Robinson recovered and it was time to take a knee.
The ‘Bama formula was effective for another Saturday: Feed Henry; let Coker play store manager; wait for the defense to perform an emergency football-ectomy.
On that Alabama rests its head and takes a much needed break.