By Vince Ferrara / @VinceSports (on X/Facebook/IG/YouTube)
After an incredibly impressive first half where Tennessee led 20-7 at Alabama, the Tide literally turned in the home team’s favor as Alabama outscored the Vols 27-0 in the second half in route to a 34-20 win.
Here are some of the biggest points that hurt Tennessee and my observations from the game here in my blog “Vince’s View” here on 991TheSportsAnimal.com.
You’ll also see all the Tennessee Football postgame press conferences from Tuscaloosa.
Key Points In The UT Loss
Redzone Woes Continue
Tennessee scored just one touchdown in four redzone trips. Those two first half drives that bogged down with the Vols settling for two FGs felt like it would be costly and it was. I thought UT should have tried to run the ball more in the redzone, but they likely felt UT’s offensive line couldn’t push the Alabama defensive line around in tight quarters. UT’s tempo is nullified in the redzone when they slow down so much. I think they are much slower in the redzone this season when they dial it back than they were a year ago.
I said it on the pregame, coaching adjustments during the game would be a big part of this game. Plenty of games this season for both teams, especially for Alabama have looked much different from half-to-half and sometimes quarter-to-quarter. Texas A&M had the same problem against Alabama. The Aggies dominated play and the line of scrimmage with sacks and TFLs in the first half, but it couldn’t separate from them enough on the scoreboard while playing so well. Alabama then was much cleaner, especially at the line of scrimmage, in the second half and won the game.
4th Down Risks Costly
I didn’t get Tennessee going for it on 4th & 1 1/2 from their own 47 yard line, up 20-17. Josh Heupel said they thought they would be successful, so they called it. Well sure, every time you call a play you expect it to be successful, but that’s not the reality of football. It’s a risk/reward decision. That stop, when Alabama was already feeling good with the strong start to the half, gave the Tide even more juice and momentum. They immediately easily went down the half-field and scored the go-ahead touchdown, and never looked back. With UT punter Jackson Ross having a record setting day, I like trying to pin Alabama back deep and let your defense go to work to try and get the momentum and the ball back. The first half 4th down call was questionable as well, but that was more of a play-call head scratcher.
2nd Half Opening Possession Quick Strike
How quickly and easily Alabama took the opening possession and zoomed down the field on two plays (29-yd Jace McClellan run and then a 46-yd TD pass from Jalen Milroe to Isaiah Bond) was huge in the game as well. That burst on an often-important possession in games, elevated Alabama’s confidence, put UT on their heels and for the first time in the game, got the crowd to full noise levels. It was downhill from there for the Vols.
Milroe Running and Escaping the Rush
Jalen Milroe ended with just 3 net rushing yards after the sack yardage was removed, but in the second half Bama started using him on designed runs and the Vols didn’t keep contain off the edge allowing him to escape the pocket. On the 15-play drive that ended in a FG to put Alabama up 27-20, Milroe converted two 3rd downs running, including a 3rd and 10.
These two teams were both heavily penalized all season. Tennessee went into the game last in the SEC in penalty yards per game. Alabama has had some massive, head-scratching penalty totals in some games. There were missed calls all over the place on both sides. Tennessee was called for 8 penalties for 55 yards, while Alabama was called for 1 penalty for 5 yards. Considering there’s holding and pass interference on so many plays in football, getting called for just one penalty is hard to do. But, let’s not forget, officiating is often bad across the board in many games not involving Tennessee. The discerning signal call on Elijah Herring of Tennessee has been called in other games and is being emphasized this season, so they didn’t just make that up. Fair to argue the rule though. The refs clearly missed a personal foul penalty on Herring punching Alabama RB Roydell Williams after a play. There difference in penalty calls was still big and one that Josh Heupel was not happy about. He was asked if the officiating was one-sided against them. He had 15 seconds of silence and then said “Next question. Is that long enough silence?”
We’ll speak to former, longtime SEC on-field and replay official Gerald Hodges Tuesday on SportsTalk on 99.1 The Sports Animal for his weekly two segments, “The Officiating Half Hour.” Send us your questions to our text line at 865-656-9900 for Gerald, specify for “SportsTalk” and we’ll asked Gerald your question.
Line Of Scrimmage
Tennessee’s offensive line was sharp and excellent in the first half, especially when UT was on-tempo. The second half broke down on both sides of the ball. Neither line of scrimmage was physical enough in that second half. Elijah Herring said they let go of that rope and thought they had the game won. That’s hard to understand considering how inconsistent the team has been on offense and who they were playing. Losing Gerald Mincey at RT hurt, but the issues were spread out. UT’s pressure on Milroe slowed and they couldn’t get him to the ground. DC Tim Banks even dialed-up some blitzes in the second half that didn’t get home like they did in the first half.
Running Back Run-Game Not Up To Standards
We all asked for Joe Milton’s involvement in the run game, but he shouldn’t be your leading rusher with 59 net yards. Tennessee’s top three running backs came into the game averaging 210 yards per game. The trio only mustered up 74 yards combined in the game. The pass game picked-up and the run game fell back. We still haven’t seen this offense put together a complete game.
No Easy Scores Anymore
How many times did the Vols offense score easy touchdowns last season? All the time. It seems like such a grind for this offense, even when they have success. Reminds you of some UT Basketball offensive possessions. You get some results and wins, but it often takes something last minute or spectacular to get the job done. Even the long house-call runs are lacking this season.
Some Vols Top Performers
WR Squirrel White
He had a spectacular 39-yard TD reception at the front pylon in the first quarter. He caught the backend of the ball, controlled it, got a foot down and maintained control to the ground. He’s had UT’s two most spectacular receptions this season. He notched his fourth career 100-plus yard receiving game (second this season), finishing with a career-high 10 receptions for 111 yards and one touchdown. He was the go-to receiver for Joe Milton all game, but especially on the opening drive, where he had four catches for 58 yards and that TD.
QB Joe Milton III
I thought he played an excellent game. I don’t pin this loss on him. He has to be more aware in the pocket that you can’t hold on to the football standing still so long and not expect backside rush. That strip-sack-fumble-scoop-and-score realistically put the game out of reach. He made some big-time throws though including some down the field and in the middle of the field. He had a career-high 28 completions on 41 pass attempts, which was also a UT career high. His 271 passing yards was also a UT career high. I thought his involvement in the run-game was long overdue. He had 15 carries for 59 yards with at least 2/3 of those designed or read-option runs with conviction. He moved the chains numerous times when under pressure and getting out of the pocket.
P Jackson Ross
How good was the Aussie in this game? He set the Tennessee single-game record for punting average (min. 5 punts), with five punts for 266 yards for an average of 53.2 yards per punt. He even had a 71-yarder. Yes, he was helped by Kool Aid McKinstry letting the punts drop and roll, put that’s part of the beauty of the rugby kick is that it’s not easy to pick-up. It’s also underrated how he’s able to run forward when there’s light or no pressure and kick on the run, picking up additional yards. He’s weapon Josh Heupel should have leaned on rather than the 4th down try in the 3rd quarter.
John Wilkerson and I host SportsTalk, weekdays 6-9am, on 99.1 The Sports Animal in Knoxville, streaming at 991TheSportsAnimal.com, on The Sports Animal app or on your smart speakers. Listen for much more on Tennessee Football on a daily basis.