Heupel's Vols have 'a lot of fun for three quarters' in loss to Tide

AP photo by Vasha Hunt / Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel argues with officials after a touchdown by Alabama quarterback Bryce Young during the second half of Saturday night's SEC matchup in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. - The Tennessee Volunteers were up for an early Halloween scare Saturday night in Bryant-Denny Stadium.

Alabama has never been one to frighten easily under Nick Saban.

Given little chance against the No. 4 Crimson Tide as 25-point underdogs, the Vols led by a touchdown entering the second quarter and trailed by a touchdown early in the fourth before Alabama broke free for a 52-24 win before a sold-out crowd of 100,077. The triumph was Alabama's 15th straight over Tennessee, with all 15 coming under Saban's guidance.

"I don't question the way our guys show up to compete every Saturday," Tennessee first-year coach Josh Heupel said after his inaugural game in the longstanding rivalry. "I love going to compete with them, and tonight was a lot of fun for three quarters. We've just got to grow up and be smarter.

"Our margins are smaller than we want. They know that, and we know that."

If Alabama prevails in Knoxville next season, Saban would match Bear Bryant's 16 wins against the Vols that transpired throughout Bryant's 25 years in Tuscaloosa.

Sophomore quarterback Bryce Young completed 31 of 43 passes for 371 yards and two touchdowns for Alabama (7-1, 4-1 Southeastern Conference), and he also rushed 10 times for 42 yards and two scores. Young's biggest gain was a 65-yard strike to Jameson Williams that set up Brian Robinson's 15-yard touchdown run the ensuing play, which made it 38-24 with 12:42 left in the game.

"This was a great victory for our team," Saban said. "It's always great, because this is a great rivalry to me, to us and to a lot of people in the state of Alabama. Our crowd was fantastic out there."

photo AP photo by Vasha Hunt / Tennessee wide receiver JaVonta Payton heads for the end zone and a touchdown after making a catch during Saturday night's game at No. 4 Alabama.

Vols quarterback Hendon Hooker had an impressive night of his own, throwing a 57-yard touchdown to JaVonta Payton in the first quarter and a 70-yarder to Cedric Tillman early in the fourth to highlight a 19-of-28, 282-yard performance with three scores. His one gaffe was a miscommunication with Payton that resulted in an interception by Jalyn Armour-Davis with 11:02 to go that sealed the game.

"We were on two different pages," Hooker said. "I read the coverage one way, and he read it another. We can't have those turnovers on my part, so I've just got to play better."

The Vols (4-4, 2-3) erupted for 150 first-quarter yards and a 14-7 advantage after the first 15 minutes, but they were held to 68 combined yards in the second and third quarters. Tennessee entered Saturday ranked fifth nationally with 249.1 rushing yards per game but was held to 64 on 26 carries, with the absence of injured right tackle Cade Mays factoring into its struggles.

"As much as anything, we just got beat on a couple things inside in some critical situations," Heupel said. "We didn't win our one-on-ones up front, so we couldn't operate efficiently. Cade is a big part of who we are on the offensive line, but I thought Dayne (Davis) filled in and did a lot of good things tonight."

Both teams have open dates next weekend before resuming play Nov. 6, when Tennessee is at Kentucky and Alabama hosts LSU.

"There was no doubt in our mind that we were trying to go out there to win this game," Tillman said. "We thought we had them in the fourth quarter, but a lack of execution is what killed ourselves.

"There are no more moral victories. We've got to execute in the fourth quarter, because we've let a few games slip now."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.