Groundhog Day in Tuscaloosa
It took Alabama 34 minutes to score their first TD of the evening, thanks to an aggressive and effective first-half Tennessee defense, not to mention a punter’s passing prowess. But for the fourth time this season against an SEC opponent, the Vols got burned early in the second half to lose hard-fought momentum.
The old bromide of the first five minutes of the second half being the most important part of a football game is now becoming a weekly affair. Yes, the Vols had outplayed and outfoxed the Crimson Tide for 30 minutes of SEC football to grind out an old-fashioned, defense-fueled 6-6 first-half tie. But Tennessee gave up two quick scores to Alabama on the Tide’s first two possessions of the third quarter to make an exciting contest morph into another predictably dreadful end.
This was Tennessee’s fourth SEC game of the season. This was the fourth time the Vols gave up scores during each of their conference opponent’s first two possessions of the second half. That’s 0-for-8 so far this season. This was Tennessee’s fourth conference loss of the 2011 season.
Welcome to Groundhog Day.
Perhaps the most significant event of the evening in terms of the long range view of this season was late in the fourth quarter. Freshman QB Justin Worley made his first appearance as a Tennessee Vol. Simms wasn’t hurt. The game was essentially long over. Dooley was burning Worley’s redshirt status right there for everyone to see. Simms looked on from the sideline knowing that a redshirt burning meant his fortunes were turning.
More on that later this week. Let’s look back at the game as it developed.
Very early in this game, Tennessee showed the nation they came to play.
On the first possession of the game, Bama QB AJ McCarron threw over the middle, where senior Vol QB Austin Johnson made a nice read, dropped back, and picked off the pass. It was the first turnover by this Alabama team in what seemed like eons. It was the first Vol pass interception since early September.
After both teams traded stops and punts, Tennessee broke through. Fueled by a nice 14-yard gain on a 3rd-and-13 draw run by Tauren Poole, Michael Palardy converted his 40-yard FGA to put the Vols up 3-0. The key of the drive was shortly after Poole’s big run. On a 4th and 3, the Vols second attempt on fourth down, Matt Simms hit Da’Rick Rogers on the left sideline to keep the drive alive. Dooley and Company showed they didn’t come down to Alabama to wilt and go away, at least for a while.
Saying that the Crimson Tide answered back with a Jeremey Shelley field goal to even the score at three apiece would be flattering to Bama. After Vol CB Marsalis Teague got embarased by Marquis Maze on a long pass play to get the drive started, the Vol defense stood up tall with Bama ready to knock the door down in the red zone – two plays inside the 10. The next time Bama got the ball, they found themselves in the red zone again, and also found themselves getting stuffed by the Big Orange defense. A Shelley field goal put the Tide up 6-3, but Tennessee was outplaying the vaunted Crimson Tide in their own house.
The momentum was with the team trailing.
Tennessee tried their best to fail on the next possession with two offensive penalties. But Da’Rick Rogers came up big when on third down he caught a Simms strike on a slant and then fought his way to move the chains. Then, after Simms missed a wide open Rogers on the next 3rd down, the Vol punter made the play of the half. Back to kick, Palardy took the snap and then calmly threw a strike to Vol WR Anthony Anderson who fought to get the first down yardage.
Not only were the Vols outplaying the Tide, but Tennessee was showing the Crimson Tide that they had no fear.
The drive eventually sputtered, leaving Palardy with a 52-yard field goal attempt. Palardy had not been kicking well for the majority of the season. But he calmly converted his longest field goal of his young career as the ball sneaked just passed the right upright.
Alabama had not given up any points in the second quarter all season long. It was 6-6, but it felt like Tennessee had the lead.
More terrific defense by the Vols was to come. Tennessee snuffed the Tide 3-and-out on the next possession, and on the Tide’s last possession of the half, Malik Jackson recorded a QB sack to end the half. It was a half that showed the Vols winning the time of possession, 16 minutes to 14, and rushing yards, 6 to 35 yards.
Alabama found themselves in their first fight of the season. The Vols had scars and scabs from their previous skirmishes and looked ready to go the distance.
It looked for a moment that the Vol defense would make their mark early in the second quarter. On the first play from scrimmage, Bama QB AJ McCarron looked like he would be sacked, but somehow eluded pursuing white jerseys and found Trent Richardson on a screen pass that went for 22 yards. All of a sudden, the 100,000+ crowd was back in the contest. And, when on a first and goal at the Vol 2 yard line, McCarron rolled right and with no one open ran to the pylon for the score to make it 13-6 Alabama, it looked like a repeat of most of Tennessee’s season of early third quarter failures against Georgia and LSU.
On the ensuing possession, the Vols found themselves a foot short after a third down play at their own 40. Dooley called for his third 4th down attempt of the night. Simms ran a QB sneak, and looked to be across the yellow TV line for the first, but a horrible officials’ spot of the ball allowed the chains measurement to show Tennessee was an inch short. Dooley challenged the call, but predictably, the ruling on the field stood.
Alabama had sucked all of the momentum out of the Vols’ vessel.
On the first play of Bama’s possession, AJ McCarron found Kenny Bell in the Vols endzone on a simple straight route to paydirt. Once again, the Tennessee secondary got burned badly. Once again, the Vols gave up a quick second-half strike.
The Crimson Tide rout was on.
That rout was punctuated on the very next Alabama possession, when after a Vol 3-and-out drive, Bama’s running machine Trent Richardson ran like a hot red knife through cold orange butter to put the Tide up 27 to 6.
Following an Alabama field goal, Matt Simms, with good protection, didn’t see a wide-open Michael Rivera and instead chose to throw a very poor pass over the middle that Dante Hightower picked off, leading to yet another quick Tide touchdown.
In a matter of only a little more than 15 minutes, the score migrated from 6-6 to 37-6. That was helped by the Vols’ inability to get a single first down in the second half.
This wasn’t the bleeding to death in the second half like last week’s affair in Neyland Stadium against the Number One LSU Tigers. This was being bludgeoned to death by forty powerful, angry elephants.
Mercifully, it ended.
Some very good things happened Saturday night for the Vols. There were notable areas of improvement.
But that’s for another day. Right now, we’ll go lick that same wound. Hopefully it doesn’t get infected.