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Tennessee wrap-up: Tide dominates stat sheet, but mistakes kept Vols in it — to a point

The biggest question surrounding Alabama heading into its game was whether the Volunteers would face the Crimson Tide team that faced Texas A&M, or the Crimson Tide team that faced Mississippi State.

Alabama decided to bring both.

This was a “boom/bust” game from the outset. Alabama’s offense boomed; its defense went bust on three separate occasions, giving up two long touchdowns and another long gain that set up a short score. Those mistakes kept Tennessee in it, but for some reason, Tennessee never felt to be on the verge of taking the game over.

Perhaps that’s because Alabama had more than triple the number of first downs as the Volunteers – 33 for Alabama, 10 for Tennessee – or that Alabama was able to completely shut down the vaunted Volunteer rushing attack. Tennessee’s rushers carried the ball 26 times for 64 yards and came up short nearly every time Tennessee went to them on short third-down calls.

Alabama melded together elements of the unfocused, undisciplined team that was upset in College Station together with the throttling, dominating team that snuffed Mississippi State last week. Tennessee’s final touchdown, for instance, came over CB Josh Jobe, who was still looking at the sideline when the ball was snapped and didn’t figure it out until the receiver he was covering ran by him on the inside.

Then again, Alabama’s defense held Tennessee to 2 of 13 on third downs and 0 of 1 on fourth downs, while the Bama offense picked up 15 of 20 of its third-down chances.

It was a runaway statistical domination, sprinkled liberally with periods of nail-biting panic. In the end, Alabama won the game 52-24, more than doubling Tennessee’s offensive output, while keeping the ball in its possession for more than two-thirds of the allotted time.

Alabama fans found themselves wondering why the offensive staff wouldn’t call more power runs to take advantage of Tennessee’s tired defense, but at the same time, Bama put up nearly 600 total yards of offense in the end. Explaining that conundrum is like trying to figure out where the tiger goes during a David Copperfield show.

For Tennessee’s part, the Volunteers did their level best to rebound not just from a painful loss to Ole Miss a week before, but from the physical pounding the Vols took in that game. Ole Miss’ offense ran more than 100 plays, and Vol QB Hendon Hooker left the game late with an ugly leg injury. But the Tennessee defense did its best to keep Alabama stymied for the first three quarters at least, yielding just 24 points despite the barrage of yardage, while Hooker played the entire game at quarterback with no outward issues. Hooker’s lone mistake came late in the game, an interception taken back deep by CB Jalyn Armour-Davis.

Time will tell if Josh Heupel can win at Tennessee. He used relentless tempo on offense against Alabama, causing confusion several times, but all that crying havoc and letting loose the dogs of war did his defense no favors late in the game, as Alabama outscored Tennessee 28-7 in the fourth quarter. It is one thing to be fearless; it is another to be a tactician. Butch Jones once brought a tempo-forward Tennessee team to Bryant-Denny Stadium and gave Bama a better game than it expected; Jones then got fired soon afterward and ended up endearing himself to Alabama fans while serving as one of Nick Saban’s offensive analysts.

Tennessee has come further as a team in 2021 than most expected. Heupel has done enough to warrant some optimism. But when you get into the nuts and bolts of this game, it wasn’t nearly as close as the score looked. As Alabama fans ignored the prohibition on the use of tobacco products and filled Bryant-Denny Stadium in a Cuban-scented cloud of smoke halfway into the fourth quarter, the main takeaway from Bama’s 15th consecutive win in the series is that there is still much work for Tennessee to do – and all the tempo in the world can’t speed it up.

Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Tennessee:

1. Bama’s DL and LB did as much as any unit to win this game; UT rushing game never got on track. Tennessee came into this game with the nation’s fifth-ranked rushing offense, and ended up laying an egg the size of Percy Priest Lake. Starting tailback Tiyon Evans did the best, getting 30 yards on 7 carries, but he came into the game at less than 100 percent health and seemed to re aggravate a leg injury. The rest of the carries went to Jabari Small (7 attempts, 8 yards) and QB Hendon Hooker (12 carries, 26 yards), who had just one carry of decent length (12 yards).

Alabama played three true DL up front for much of the contest, and every DL that played in the game with the exception of Justin Eboigbe had at least one tackle for loss. Will Anderson led the team in tackles from his OLB spot and collected another 1.5 sacks, while Phidarian Mathis was too much for Tennessee’s interior OL for most of the game.

In addition, Alabama’s inside linebackers played by far their best game of the year as a group. Christian Harris was active and aggressive up the middle, and former UT linebacker Henry To’o To’o collected 5 tackles and blew up several other plays, forcing runners into meeting other tacklers. To’o To’o had something to prove in this one, specifically to confirm whether he had made the right choice in transferring to Alabama. We’d consider it mission accomplished.

2. QB Bryce Young solidified his Heisman candidacy by taking a difficult assignment into his own hands. Young continues to put better performances on top of great performances as the weeks roll on. He ran for two touchdowns in this game and threw for two others, and appeared to realize that tonight, he was going to have to run the ball at times for Alabama to win. Young finished with 42 yards on 10 carries but was at 56 yards before sacks came off the top.

The passing numbers were his typical excellence: 31 of 43 (72.1%), 371 yards, no picks to go with the two scores. He looked in control at all times and didn’t get rattled when Jameson Williams fumbled the ball after a long reception. He later hit Williams with another bomb that may have been the offensive play of the game, given the situation. It’s easy to mark the quarterback as one of the keys to the game, but Young – like Mac Jones last year – has separated himself from most quarterbacks he squares off against, and has left opponents needing him to have an off-night in order to beat the Crimson Tide. Tennessee wasn’t so lucky.

3. Special teams were a near-disaster. Hard to sugarcoat it. James Burnip got a punt blocked when Alabama attempted to rugby-style one directly into a UT overload rush. Then there was the Tennessee touchdown that came after Alabama inexplicably decided to bring a house block on 4th-and-23 and mauled UT punter Paxton Brooks, giving the Volunteers a first down and extending the drive.

The saving grace was again PK Will Reichard, who missed what would have been a career-long 54-yard field goal attempt but later hit from 45, and then kept Tennessee’s kick returners out of the box score by continually hitting touchbacks. Burnip also had a nice one-step punt later in the game when Bama thought the rush might be coming; Burnip hit that one 46 yards. As for Alabama’s return game, if you’re wondering why Slade Bolden was back on so many punts, it was probably the result of Bama’s liberal use of duplicate jersey numbers.

Because of several short fourth-down distance situations, Alabama had to stay in punt-safe mode with the defense on the field – and that means #10 Henry To’o To’o is out there, which means #10 JoJo Earle can’t be. Bolden ended up doing his job, reliably catching punts, and had a nice kickoff return that started with him pinned on the boundary. Some bright spots here and there, but overall not this group’s finest hour.

4. Jekyll-Hyde defense was actually called well; change at S calmed things down; FG stop after the blocked punt was huge. A defense will be judged on its entire body of work, but grant us a moment to point out that Tennessee’s offensive output was basically contained to three plays. Overall, Alabama’s defensive gameplan was solid. Combined with the clear edge Alabama’s DL had over the Volunteer OL, and there wasn’t a lot to be upset with in this game. The linebackers played downhill; the defensive line gave Tennessee’s OL the night terrors.

When things didn’t work, Alabama adjusted adroitly: After Daniel Wright probably calmed things down for Alabama’s secondary against Mississippi State, he was part of two big busts early in this game and was replaced by the player he replaced the week before, DeMarcco Hellams. Hellams recorded six tackles in a half of play, played his position under control and then brought his typical, strong run support to bear against Tennessee’ running backs.

As for the defensive play of the game, look no further than the Tennessee offensive series that followed the blocked punt. Alabama held and forced a field goal, which allowed Bama to maintain a 21-17 lead

5. Even when the offense went away from its strengths, it maintained its efficiency. Alabama was a perfect 7-of-7 in the red zone and 15 of 20 on third-down conversions. Total output was 574 yards, and the Tide committed no turnovers. This is the second week where Alabama’s third-down efficiency shone through – Alabama was 12-of-16 against Mississippi State – and with the Tide holding the ball for 40:26 in this game to Tennessee’s 19:34, the Crimson Tide was able to control the pace and flow.

There were still some curious moments, mostly regarding Alabama’s reluctance to run the ball when it appeared the Bama passing game was misfiring for one reason or another, but the end results confirmed the plan no matter how circuitous the path to get there.

The one thing we’d like to see improved going forward? Alabama’s tight end play, which over the last three weeks went from being a pleasant surprise to a game of spin-the-bottle. Jahleel Billingsley had another big drop in this game that at the time, looked as if it would end up being a critical play. Cameron Latu caught 3 passes for 55 yards but also had a penalty and whiffed on a couple of blocks. Kendall Randolph continues to block well when in the game, but is never targeted in the passing game; he probably needs to get a bunny throw once or twice to make defenses at least think about it.

Again, we have questions about a lot of things that transpired in this game … and then we consult the stat sheet, and voila, those concerns magically disappear.

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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