Photo by University of Tennessee Athletics (@Vol_Football)
By Tucker Harlin
TUSCALOOSA, Ala- No. 17 Tennessee (5-2, 2-2) collapsed against the force of No. 11 Alabama (7-1, 5-0) 34-20 in Bryant-Denny Stadium Saturday.
The Crimson Tide lived up to its name as the red tsunami surged for 27 points in the second half to remain undefeated in SEC play.
“Credit to Alabama, in the second half they played extremely well,” said Vols head coach Josh Heupel. “In the second half, we just weren’t good enough, from me, to our coaches, to our players.”
The night did not end well for the Vols, but they struck on their first possession. After several short plays to start the drive, Joe Milton found Squirrel White for 39 yards down the sideline, giving the Vols a 7-point edge.
“You’ve got to do your job,” Milton said. “You’ve got to do your job and assignment at a high level, and I don’t feel like I did that because we lost.”
The Vols had a pair of possessions where they drove inside the 10-yard line, but both stalled out and resulted in field goals, keeping the lead at 13 points as opposed to 21.
After another punt exchange, the Tide found the end zone for the first time. The Tide took over just short of midfield, and nine plays later, Jalen Milroe found Jermaine Burton for a 10-yard touchdown pass, making it 13-7.
The Vols punted on their next possession, and the Tide was on pace to find the end zone again. Instead, Milroe’s pass to Burton in the end zone was batted by Doneiko Slaughter into the arms of Jaylen McCollough for an interception.
The Vols made their way down the field thanks to critical first down completions to White and Ramel Keyton. The drive ended with a Milton touchdown pass to McCallan Castles, giving the Vols the 20-7 lead they took to half.
“We weren’t as physical as we came out in the first half,” said Vols linebacker Elijah Herring. “We let go of the rope, we got comfortable. It felt like we had won the game already.”
Two explosive plays by the Tide out of halftime shrunk the Vols’ lead back to six. A 29-yard run by Jase McClellan was followed by a 46-yard touchdown pass from Milroe to Isaiah Bond.
The Vols had no success after starting their next possession at their 4-yard line. The Tide chiseled away some more at the lead as kicker Will Reichard was true from 42 yards.
The Vols found themselves in a fourth-and-inches situation on the ensuing drive and opted to keep the offense on the field, but it failed to pass the line to gain. The Tide took the lead for the first time as a 47-yard march ended in a Jase McClellan rush touchdown.
“We felt like we had an opportunity to pick it up,” Heupel said about the fourth down decision. “Obviously we didn’t, and we gave them a short field.”
After a quick Vols three and out, the Tide chewed off nearly eight minutes of game time on a possession that ended with Will Reichard drilling a 50-yard field goal, giving Alabama a 27-20 lead.
The Vols converted a first down on the next drive, but Milton was stripped by Tide linebacker Jihaad Campbell, who returned the fumble 30 yards to the end zone.
“There’s nothing we should do differently,” Milton said. “Everybody on the team has a wristband that says ‘take a deep breath.’ We need to embrace these moments, we used to pray for moments like these when we were younger. We just need to do our jobs, that’s all that matters.”
The Vols will remain on the road next week as they travel to Lexington to take on Kentucky. Kickoff is at 7 p.m. ET and the game will air on SEC Network.