Vols cave under Alabama’s second-half onslaught

Crimson Tide photos / Jermaine Burton leaps for a first-half touchdown catch during Alabama's 34-20 victory over Tennessee on Saturday afternoon in Tuscaloosa.
Crimson Tide photos / Jermaine Burton leaps for a first-half touchdown catch during Alabama's 34-20 victory over Tennessee on Saturday afternoon in Tuscaloosa.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Tennessee was the better football team Saturday afternoon inside Bryant-Denny Stadium.

For the first 30 minutes.

After spotting the No. 17 Volunteers a 20-7 halftime advantage, No. 11 Alabama unleashed fury in the third and fourth quarters to deck Tennessee 34-20 on an immaculate day weather-wise for this tradition-rich rivalry.

The Crimson Tide’s 13-point deficit was reflected by them getting outgained 275-133, but they opened the second half on a two-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to stagger the Vols, who beat Alabama 52-49 last October in Knoxville and were seeking to prevail inside Bryant-Denny for the first time since 2003. Tennessee has now lost 10 consecutive times at both Florida and Alabama.

“In the second half, we just weren’t good enough, from our coaches to our players,” Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said. “We’ve got to be able to play for 60 minutes against a good football team, and on the road. I’m extremely disappointed in the outcome, but I told our guys in the locker room that they compete.

“We weren’t smart enough at times, but I will go with these guys anywhere.”

Alabama scored the final 27 points roughly a month after Florida scored 26 consecutive points to turn a quick 7-0 Tennessee lead into a 26-7 halftime advantage in an eventual 29-16 Gators win.

“It didn’t feel the same. It did not,” Heupel said. “We just didn’t have all 11 at all times, and we didn’t do enough in the second half.”

Alabama took its first lead at 24-20 on Jase McClellan’s 5-yard run with 3:42 remaining in the third quarter, which capped a five-play possession that began at Tennessee’s 47 after Vols running back Dylan Sampson was stuffed for no gain on fourth-and-1. Will Reichard connected on a 50-yard field goal with 8:17 left in the game to make it 27-20, and Alabama’s defense sealed it with 7:26 remaining on Chris Braswell’s sack of Joe Milton III that caused a fumble Jihaad Campbell returned 24 yards for a touchdown.

“Obviously that was a pretty fun second half,” Alabama coach Nick Saban after improving to 18-2 against the Vols, including a 16-1 mark with the Tide. “When I walked in at halftime after they had scored right before the half, I said, ‘Everybody here has a choice to make. What do you want to accomplish? What do you want to do?’ We went out on offense and scored in two plays and changed the momentum of the game and played well from that time on.

“Tennessee has a really good team, and I’m really proud of our players for how they competed.”

Alabama quarterback Jalen Milroe completed 14 of 21 passes for 220 yards and two touchdowns. He was complemented by the rushing of McClellan, who amassed 115 yards and a score on 27 carries.

Vols quarterback Joe Milton III threw for 271 yards and two touchdowns and rushed 15 times for 59 yards but had the costliest turnover of the game.

The Tide improved to 7-1 overall and to 5-0 in Southeastern Conference play heading into their much-desired open date, while the Vols dropped to 5-2 overall and 2-2 in league play heading into next weekend’s trip to Kentucky.

Tennessee received the ball first and promptly marched 75 yards in eight plays, grabbing a 7-0 lead on a 39-yard pass from Milton to Squirrel White, who made an acrobatic catch as he fell into the end zone. Milton went 5-for-5 passing on the opening drive and added a 9-yard run for a first down in which he lowered his shoulder into Tide safety Malachi Moore.

White had 10 catches for 111 yards and the touchdown, which had to be confirmed by replay.

“I knew I had it,” White said. “We practice those kinds of catches every day in practice.”

The Vols extended their lead to 10-0 with two minutes left in the opening quarter on Charles Campbell’s 24-yard field goal. At the time of Campbell’s kick, Tennessee had 172 total yards to Alabama’s 32.

On the Tide’s ensuing possession, Vols edge rusher James Pearce Jr. hit Milroe to cause a fumble that Omarr Norman-Lott recovered at Alabama’s 23. Tennessee got a quick first down, but Milton threw high to tight end Jacob Warren on third-and-goal from the 8, and the Vols had to settle on a Campbell 26-yard field goal and a 13-0 advantage.

Alabama pulled within 13-7 midway through the second quarter on a 10-yard pass from Milroe to Jermaine Burton. The Tide appeared to be on the verge of taking the lead after stopping Milton on fourth-and-1 at the Tennessee 34, but a pass from Milroe to Burton into the end zone went off Burton’s shoulder and was intercepted for the touchback by Jaylen McCollough.

Tennessee capitalized on Alabama’s second turnover with a touchdown this time, zipping 80 yards in 10 plays and taking a 20-7 lead with 12 seconds before halftime on a 6-yard pass from Milton to tight end McCallan Castles. Milton had 175 passing yards and 43 rushing yards as Tennessee built its 13-point halftime lead.

The Tide opened the second half with a 29-yard run by McClellan and a 46-yard scoring strike from Milroe to a wide-open Isaiah Bond that made it 20-14. A Reichard 42-yard field goal at the 8:33 mark of the third quarter pulled Alabama within 20-17.

“They came out and hit one split zone on us and ended up getting seven,” Heupel said. “We got called for signaling a fair catch from our front line on a sky kick, and the ball gets placed on the 4. We didn’t pick it up, and they had an opportunity to go get more points.

“The change in the game happened quickly, and we’ve got to be more efficient in what we’re doing.”

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.

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