Tennessee wrap-up: Bama squeezes Big Orange hearts with late win

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Oct 24, 2015; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide wide receiver ArDarius Stewart (13) pulls down a pass over Tennessee Volunteers defensive back Justin Martin (8) during the fourth quarter at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 24, 2015; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide wide receiver ArDarius Stewart (13) pulls down a pass over Tennessee Volunteers defensive back Justin Martin (8) during the fourth quarter at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

By Jess Nicholas
TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Oct. 25, 2015

A game like this was almost expected, the result of Alabama being faced, week after week, with a gauntlet of rested teams, thanks to the SEC office’s inability (or lack of desire) to address unfair scheduling practices.

And in this case, the Crimson Tide nearly paid the price for the circumstances outside its control.

Tennessee looked like what it was – a fresh, rested team – in this contest, while Alabama looked slow and sluggish at multiple points over the span of the afternoon. But as championship teams must do, the Crimson Tide reached down deep to find just enough stamina and strength to fend off a hungry Volunteer team desperate to break a losing streak that predates the Barack Obama administration.

Alabama’s 19-14 win gave the Tide nine straight wins over Tennessee, making Nick Saban undefeated against the Volunteers while at the helm of the Bama program. More importantly, the victory gets Alabama into its bye week with minimal injuries, needing only one more loss by Ole Miss to clear its path to Atlanta, provided the Crimson Tide takes care of business down the stretch.

This is an Alabama team that has made significant strides over the last month, particularly on defense. The Tide defensive line is almost napalm-like, sticking to opposing running backs and burning down offensive gameplans. Tired as it was, Alabama’s defensive unit mostly allowed the Volunteers to run up empty yardage, containing the Big Orange offense to progress between the 30s. Alabama yielded two long, quick touchdown drives, and not much else.

Although Tennessee took the lead for the first time in the fourth quarter, if one were to look at certain areas of the stat sheet, it wouldn’t have seemed possible. Alabama controlled the clock for all but 8 minutes and 34 seconds of the second half. The Crimson Tide put up field goals following a pair of drives that ate more than 13 minutes of the clock by themselves. And for all the talk about Tennessee’s dangerous, uptempo spread offense, QB Joshua Dobbs threw for only 171 yards and the game was over in just 3 hours and 13 minutes thanks to the lack of offensive production.

In a way, the game was a throwback – to the era of Gene Stallings.

The fact that Alabama was able to keep a lid on the Vol offense was even more impressive given the production of RB Jalen Hurd. Hurd gives Tennessee a weapon many spread teams lack: a true power back with speed to get to the edge. Most spread teams either make do with speedy scatbacks (think Ole Miss), or when there is size present in the backfield (Texas A&M), the players in question are often limited in ability. Not Hurd.

Alabama barely held the brawny Hurd under 100 yards; he gained 92 on 18 carries, a 5.1-yard average. Tennessee’s offensive line punched well above its weight to come up with that kind of production on the ground.

But the Vols couldn’t stop the Alabama pass rush. Tennessee’s offensive line has been the weakness of the team for the entirety of Butch Jones’ tenure in Knoxville, and it was no different today. Alabama recorded 5 sacks, 8 QB hurries, and broke up 3 passes. Out of 27 called pass plays, Alabama affected the quarterback negatively 16 times.

As good as the defense was, though, the game will probably be remembered more for the Alabama offense – most specifically, the final drive that effectively ripped Tennessee’s hearts out. Ryan Anderson and A’Shawn Robinson then made sure no one would resuscitate the Vols, sacking Joshua Dobbs one last time and causing a fumble that Robinson took back inside the 5-yard line. All that was left to do then was sing “Rammer Jammer” a half-dozen times and light up enough cigars that Bryant-Denny Stadium transformed into a humidor.

Several Alabama players were interviewed this week about their planned activities for the upcoming off-week. Many mentioned hunting, fishing or some other recreational activity. Perhaps they should just stay in bed and catch up on sleep. The SEC may have done Alabama no favors with the schedule, but now that the Crimson Tide has run the gauntlet, the off-week comes at a perfect time to recharge before the home stretch begins in earnest.

Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Tennessee:

1. A near-weekly complaint: Offensive line woes nearly cost Bama the win. What’s most infuriating about Alabama’s offensive line play, week to week, is that it’s just erratic enough that it can’t be counted upon, one way or the other. Consistency has been lacking, and more so than that, Alabama coaches don’t know what they should plan to do. It bears mentioning that RB Derrick Henry still rushed for 143 yards on 28 carries, a 5.1-yard average, and lost just 4 yards on the night. But Jake Coker was sacked 5 times and hurried on 2 other occasions, and also scrambled twice more for gains of less than a yard. Snap-to-affect times (STAT) hovered around the 2.0-second mark on most, if not all the snaps in question; when Coker did have ample time to throw, the results were typically good passes downfield, such as one to ArDarius Stewart that put Alabama in business at Tennessee’s 8-yard line and led to the field goal that put Alabama up 10-7. As Nick Saban noted in his postgame press conference, Tennessee forced the issue by bringing 8 and 9 men into the box on nearly all downs, which resulted in more heat on Coker but also gave Alabama opportunities in the passing game (see point No. 2, below). It’s encouraging, not to mention somewhat surprising, that Henry was still able to amass 143 yards in light of the pressure, but much of that was due to weakness in the middle of the Tennessee defensive line, as TideFans.com noted in the game preview. Every defensive line Alabama faces from here out (save that of Charleston Southern) will be better than the one it saw today, so if Mario Cristobal has any tricks up his sleeve, now’s the time to unleash them. On the injury front, C Ryan Kelly started and went the distance, but RT Dominick Jackson suffered an apparent ankle injury on the final touchdown play of the game and his status is unknown. In his absence, Ross Pierschbacher moved from left guard to right tackle and Bradley Bozeman came in at left guard.

Oct 24, 2015; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Tennessee Volunteers quarterback Joshua Dobbs (11) scrambles up the middles against the Alabama Crimson Tide during the second quarter at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 24, 2015; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Tennessee Volunteers quarterback Joshua Dobbs (11) scrambles up the middles against the Alabama Crimson Tide during the second quarter at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

2. Alabama’s receivers were challenged to win one-on-one battles. They did just that. One of the side effects of bringing 8 or 9 defenders into the box is that the opposing offense almost always gets man coverage on the outside. Either Tennessee didn’t know that Alabama’s receivers were this good, or the Vols didn’t believe it. ArDarius Stewart made Tennessee pay dearly for its miscalculation, catching 6 passes for 114 yards including one of the most impressive, clutch catches in college football all year, a 29-yard circus act in front of the Tennessee bench. Calvin Ridley chipped in 6 catches for 62 yards. Especially with Ridley, Alabama perfected the art of the stop-fade and stop-in/stop-square routes. While Tennessee’s cornerbacks did a good job staying tight to the UA receivers, it’s almost asking too much for corners to make plays in that situation when the rest of the team is selling out to apply pressure to the quarterback. Tight end O.J. Howard may have had his best game at Alabama, at least as a receiver, nabbing 7 passes for 55 yards and converting a couple of key first downs. And for all the pressure Tennessee brought on QB Jake Coker, Coker still completed 21 of 27 passes (77.8%) for 247 yards.

3. Those of you who had Alabama winning with special teams, please step forward to claim your prize. The Volunteers came into this game with one of the most-feared special teams units in the country, thanks mostly to their prowess in the return game. And then Adam Griffith and J.K. Scott happened. Cameron Sutton returned a single punt for 3 yards. All but one of Griffith’s kickoffs went for touchbacks, including one that reached the field-level end zone bleachers on the fly. While Alabama was summarily shut down in regards to returning punts, Kenyan Drake did have two nice kickoff returns. But the story for Alabama were the kickers themselves. Scott averaged 49.8 yards per punt, while Griffith hit both his field goal tries. More importantly, Tennessee PK Aaron Medley went 0-for-3 on field goal attempts. While two were hail-Mary kicks of more than 50 yards – particularly for a kicker with limited range – another miss from 43, which was well within Medley’s range, could have come up huge. Unfortunately, Alabama’s special teams are less predictable than its offensive line, but give credit where it’s due today.

Oct 24, 2015; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide linebacker Reuben Foster (10) , linebacker Denzel Devall (30) and defensive lineman Dalvin Tomlinson (54) wrap up Tennessee Volunteers running back Jalen Hurd (1) during the second quarter at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 24, 2015; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide linebacker Reuben Foster (10) , linebacker Denzel Devall (30) and defensive lineman Dalvin Tomlinson (54) wrap up Tennessee Volunteers running back Jalen Hurd (1) during the second quarter at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

4. Tennessee’s offensive success was limited when Alabama closed off the edge-rushing game. Tennessee’s two touchdown drives both shared a common characteristic: The Vols were able to crank up the tempo and control the flow of those drives. On all others, Alabama forced Tennessee away from its run-pass speed option playbook, and the Volunteers couldn’t win with its “B” game. For Tennessee to be successful, it has to have the threat of the edge run. Alvin Kamara carried 5 times for a pedestrian 21 yards, while most of Hurd’s damage started out between the tackles. You can thank Reggie Ragland and Reuben Foster for that, most of all, along with Alabama’s safeties. Tennessee probably got away from the outside run too early, and put the game in Dobbs’ hands before it was necessary. But the reason the Vols got away from it was that Alabama had showed early success in stopping it, and Butch Jones lost his nerve. In hindsight, it may have been a miscalculation on Jones’ part.

5. No telling how good Alabama’s defensive line really is. In a game of “Count the Future NFL Players,” Alabama might have 8 or 9 out of its DL rotation that will one day play in the league. Credit DL coach Bo Davis with some of this; credit the entire coaching staff’s recruiting efforts for the rest. At the end of the day, no one can match Alabama’s defensive line, and suddenly a potential showdown with a Baylor or TCU doesn’t look so scary. Alabama’s substitution packages, which have been refined and tweaked so they can be executed even when the offense doesn’t itself substitute (and thus, bring an official in to hold the ball) has reached art-form level. Moreover, Alabama is able to bring sufficient pressure this season with sometimes as few as three rushers, which allows a rapidly improving secondary to go on offense, for lack of a better term. LSU and Leonard Fournette will test the Tide in two weeks, to be sure, but at this point, the safe money is on Alabama until proven otherwise. The Crimson Tide’s defensive line, above all other units, is what allowed Bama to juice the Big Orange on Saturday.

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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