TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It took just seven bad plays to erase 60 good ones for Tennessee.
It's a script the Volunteers have seen many times.
UT went toe to toe with second-ranked Alabama on the road Saturday night for one half, but as in so many of the Vols' losses under second-year coach Derek Dooley, things unraveled in the second half. The Crimson Tide scored 21 unanswered points in a stretch of a little more than 12 minutes on the way to a 37-6 win, Alabama's fifth consecutive in the series with their traditional rivals.
"We lost our spunk, and it was disappointing to see," Dooley said. "We did what we said we weren't going to do and that's get affected if something bad happens in the game. We lost our fight, and when you lose your fight against a great football team, what happened in the second half happens.
In four Southeastern Conference games this season, the Vols (3-4, 0-4) have been outscored 56-6 in the third quarter. The Tide (8-0, 5-0), who have an open date before hosting top-ranked LSU on Nov. 5, outscored UT 21-0 in last season's 41-10 victory in Knoxville.
The first half looked nothing like the No. 2 team in the country playing at home against a winless SEC team.
UT, which had minus-29 yards rushing in losses to Florida and Georgia, had 61 rushing yards to the Tide's 35 against a defense that was first nationally in stopping the run at 38 yards per game. The Vols turned one fourth-down conversion into a field goal, and Michael Palardy hit a career-long 52-yard field goal after completing a pass on a fake punt to keep a drive alive. Take out a 69-yard completion from quarterback AJ McCarron to receiver Marquis Maze, and Alabama had just 88 yards on 28 first-half plays.
"We are getting outplayed," Tide coach Nick Saban said at halftime. "We just need to play a lot better. They are playing really well, and we are not playing to our potential."
That changed quickly in the second half. UT punted after three plays, and Alabama quickly drove down the field on McCarron's arms and legs and scored.
UT faced a fourth-and-1 at its own 39 on the next drive, but quarterback Matt Simms was stuffed just short on a sneak. Dooley challenged the spot of the ball, but the replay official upheld the call on the field. McCarron hit Kenny Bell for a score on the next play.
"Six inches," Dooley said of his decision to go for it. "You're playing a great team. We were down [seven] at that point. I mean, if we can't sneak it for six inches, maybe we should have taken a shot. I just felt like we needed to get something going offensively."
But that never happened for the Vols, and the game unraveled from there. Alabama outgained the Vols 270-41 in the second half and held UT without a single first down.
"They just did what they wanted to do, and we didn't stop it," said UT defensive lineman Malik Jackson. "We played hard-nosed football for 30 minutes, but unfortunately for us, football games are 60 minutes. We've got to go out there and play all four quarters."
McCarron, who completed just eight passes in the first half, hit on all seven of his throws in the third quarter. The redshirt sophomore had 125 yards passing as the Tide successfully used their play-action game
Trent Richardson, the Tide's Heisman Trophy candidate tailback, had just 37 yards on 10 carries in the first half. The junior had 40 yards on seven second-half carries, including a powerful 12-yard run that capped the third-quarter onslaught.
"They did a couple of formational things, and they took more shots down the field," Dooley said. "They really started throwing it more. Even when you know they're going to take a shot, we get run by. They executed is what they did. They executed a lot better and we didn't.
Dooley called his team "fragile" a couple of times during his postgame meeting with reporters, and his young team has shown the knack for getting blown out in the second half.
"It's true," Poole conceded. "I think we just get affected easy, I think that's what he's talking about. The little things affect us."
Said defensive back Prentiss Waggner: "He's the coach. That's what he said. That's his opinion, and we've got to do a good job of making him wrong throughout the rest of the season."
With the game well in hand in the fourth quarter, the Alabama crowd began chanting "LSU!" in clear anticipation of the Tide's epic matchup with the Tigers two weeks from now in Tuscaloosa.
Dooley's Vols, however, can't give up on the season despite blowout losses in the last two weeks that have added insult to some key injures.
"It's not unusual at all when you've got about 17 guys in their first year of the program," Dooley said. "It's not an excuse. You've got to bunker in and fight. If you get a little fragile and you lose your spunk, you're going to lose your spunk."