Tennessee hung with Alabama for three quarters Saturday night at Bryant-Denny Stadium thanks to long passes and a bend-don’t-break defense. The Crimson Tide opened the game up in the fourth quarter to earn a 52-24 victory.
Here are four quick takeaways.
Vols’ Offense Continues Their Fast Starts
Tennessee’s first quarter offense has been one of its biggest strengths in Josh Heupel’s first season. That continued Saturday night in Tuscaloosa when the Vols jumped out to a 14-7 lead in the first quarter.
The Vols started slow offensively, going three-and-out on the opening drive of the game as a handful of Alabama defenders swarmed Jabari Small for a three-yard loss on third-and-one.
After Alabama scored on its opening drive, Tennessee went back to work. Hendon Hooker found Small for a 16-yard completion on third-and-one. Two plays later, Hooker found Cedric Tillman behind the defense for a 38-yard completion.
The Vols would capitalize as Hooker found Velus Jones Jr. for an eight-yard touchdown on third-and-eight.
Tennessee’s defense proceeded to get its first stop of the game as Will Reichard’s 54-yard field goal came up short.
It looked like Tennessee wouldn’t capitalize, but an Alabama roughing the punter on fourth-and-25 gave the Vols offense another chance.
They made the most of the opportunity.
Two plays later, Hooker found JaVonta Payton behind the defense and the Mississippi State transfer made a man miss to go 57 yards for the score.
Tennessee’s offense struggled to maintain its success into the second quarter and beyond, but Josh Heupel’s ability to scheme players open early in games has continued.
Alabama Dominates Third Down
Tennessee’s third down defense has been the glaring weakness of an overachieving defense all season.
That trend continued Saturday night where Alabama converted an eye-popping 15-of-20 third downs.
From the first drive on, Tennessee couldn’t get off the field on third downs. Alabama converted three third down conversions on its first three set of downs. Leading to the 12 play, 85 yard touchdown drive to open the game.
The Crimson Tide offense tormented the Vols’ third down defense in the first half, converting on seven-of-nine attempts in the first half.
The first half backbreaker came late in the second quarter. Tennessee had Alabama perfectly defended on third-and-seven before quarterback Bryce Young juked cornerback Alontae Taylor out of his shoes and a play later Young found John Metchie III for a touchdown to give the Tide a 21-14 lead.
The second half backbreaker came at the worst time. With Tennessee trailing by seven, the Vols were a third-and-15 stop away from forcing a three-and-out. Instead, James Williams got behind the whole Tennessee secondary for a 65-yard gain. One play later, Brian Robinson trotted in for a 15-yard touchdown and the Vols never threatened again.
On the other side of the ball, Tennessee’s third down offense struggled mightily. The Vols converted just two-of-13 third down conversions. Giving the Vols even less of a chance to put together drives
The Vols struggled badly on third-and-short, failing to convert a pair third-and-ones in the second half.
Tennessee’s Defense Finds New Life In Second Half, Fades in Fourth Quarter
Tennessee’s defense played its best version of bend but don’t break in the first half, stopping Alabama three times, once on a missed field goal, once on a fumble deep in Tennessee’s territory and then on the two-minute drill.
The 21 points Tennessee gave up wasn’t awful, but the Crimson Tide controlled the ball at will. Alabama averaged over six yards a play— despite not creating many long plays— and totaled over 300 yards in the second half.
After playing 101 plays last week against Ole Miss and facing 49 total plays in the first half, it seemed like the bottom was destined to fall out for Tennessee’s defense to start the second half.
Instead the Vols’ forced back-to-back three-and-outs to open the half. Tennessee followed up the second stop with a blocked punt that set up a UT field goal.
Tennessee would hold Alabama to a field goal on its next possession but as the fourth quarter started, the wheels finally fell off for Tim Banks’ defense. Alabama scored touchdowns on four straight drives, though they were handed a short field on a Hooker interception and a turnover on downs.
That opened Alabama’s lead from 24-17 to 52-24 and essentially put Tennessee away.
Vols’ Offense Reliant On Big Plays
Tennessee’s 24 points was the most its scored against Alabama since 2003 and the most they’ve scored in regulation since 2001.
That mark didn’t tell the whole story of Tennessee’s offense in Tuscaloosa though.
Tennessee’s 346 yards on 54 plays led to the Vols’ averaging 6.4 yards per play. However, when you take out Tennessee’s 39 and 70-yard passes to Cedric Tillman and 57-yard pass to JaVonta Payton, the Vols averaged just 3.5 yards per play.
The Vols couldn’t run the ball at all against Alabama, totaling just 64 yards on 26 carries.
Tennessee totaled just 10 first downs against Alabama with three coming on the previously noted deep passes and two coming in a late drive with the Crimson Tide playing prevent defense.