Dan Fleser: Vols Battle Bama Til Saban Pitches A Fit

Sunday, October 24, 2021 - by Dan Fleser

Tennessee had its moments against Alabama on Saturday.


The Vols hit on two scoring plays of 50-plus yards. They hadn’t done that against anyone – let alone the Crimson Tide – in nearly two years.


They blocked a punt to set up a score. Defensive back Kamal Hadden, who was starting his first game, caused a fumble that teammate Kenneth George recovered at UT’s 9-yard line to thwart a likely Alabama score.


There were enough football plays of that nature for Tennessee to be lurking within seven points early in the fourth quarter.

At that point, Alabama was forced to call a timeout to avoid a delay-of-game penalty and coach Nick Saban pitched a fit on the sideline. Turns out that was just a moment, too.


The Crimson Tide reeled off three touchdowns thereafter. Tennessee’s chances went up in a cloud of cigar smoke as Crimson Tide fans celebrated the 52-24 victory at Bryant-Denny Stadium.


The victory was Alabama’s 15th in a row in the series. No collection of moments could alter the reality of the latest installment. Alabama outgained Tennessee by more than 200 yards (574-346) and dominated time of possession, hogging the football for 40 minutes, 26 seconds.


“We’re in a competition with ourselves . . .  to be as good as we can be as fast as we can,” UT coach Josh Heupel said in his postgame interview on the Vol Network. “You’ve got to learn from this. But it’s not the result that you learn from. It’s the process of how everything unfolds during the course of the game and rewinding it to how I can be better during the course of the week to go execute at the level that you need to in this game.”


Some of what Tennessee learned from this game was a sobering affirmation of the difference between the two programs. For example, the Vols running game versus Alabama’s defensive front seven was a mismatch. The Vols had topped 100 yards rushing in their previous seven games. They rushed for just 64 yards against the Crimson Tide, however, averaging 2.5 yards per carry.


“Their front seven is really good,” Heupel said. “Big, long, physical, athletic. They make it tough to run the football. We knew that going in. I thought we’d have the opportunity to run it better than we did tonight.”


The latter thought spoke to another element of the game, something that had little to do with any talent disparity. Tennessee was whistled for 12 penalties.


Of those infractions, a personal foul penalty contributed to Alabama’s first touchdown drive. During the second quarter, the Vols were whistled for two false-start penalties during two different possessions. The first possession pinned UT at its 9-yard line and eventually gave the Crimson Tide a short field to drive for a game-tying TD.


In the third quarter, an illegal forward pass penalty factored into a UT drive ending with a field goal instead of game-tying touchdown.


Finally, UT was whistled for pass interference on one of Bama’s fourth-quarter touchdown drives.


The false start penalties bothered Heupel the most. Until Tennessee gets bigger, longer, more athletic - more like Alabama - the Vols can’t afford such mistakes.


“Competitive composure in big environments, doing the ordinary things at a really high level,” Heupel said. “There’s nothing fancy about what I just said. But it’s true.”


In other matters:   


-Tennessee led after the first quarter against Alabama for the first time since 2010 and scored two TDs in the opening quarter for the first time since 1995.


-Vols quarterback Hendon Hooker threw for 282 yards and three touchdowns. But he also threw his first interception in 140 pass attempts. The streak without an interception will go into UT’s books as the fourth longest in program history.    

 

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Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who covered University of Tennessee athletics from 1988-2019. He can be reached at ddanfleser3@gmail.com.


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