Tennessee Stat Book
For those Tennessee fans who had been claiming a good “gut feeling” all week, Saturday night was tough to stomach.
Second-ranked Alabama continued on its merry way in the national championship chase with a stifling 29-9 win over the Vols at Neyland Stadium.
It’s official now: Whatever Tennessee (3-5, 1-4 SEC) does the rest of 2008, it will finish without a signature win over a major rival.
After losses to Florida and Georgia, a decisive loss to the Crimson Tide is another black mark on coach Phillip Fulmer’s fight to retain his job.
The Vols lost to their three major rivals by a combined 85-29. UT had never lost consecutive games to Alabama in the Fulmer era.
“I’m obviously very disappointed,’’ said Fulmer. “We’re in a battle from top to bottom, whether it’s recruiting or whatever.
“But I’m more concerned about our team right now.’’
That team generated little offense: 173 total yards and only 36 rushing yards, compared to 366 yards (178 rushing) for the Tide.
And yet the Vols trailed only 6-3 until late in the first half when Alabama (8-0, 5-0) scored the game’s first touchdown on a 3-yard Glen Coffee run to go up 13-3.
With a generous portion of crimson-clad fans in the announced crowd of 106,138, Alabama tightened its grip in the third quarter.
While Tennessee opened the second half with consecutive three-and-out possessions, Alabama added a Leigh Tiffin field goal and a 79-yard touchdown drive.
Quarterback John Parker Wilson squeezed in from the 1 to make it 22-3 with 1:38 left in the third quarter, a cushion that made a successful Tennessee rally unlikely.
Still, there was no answer from UT. Bama next drove 80 yards for Roy Upchurch’s 4-yard touchdown with 9:43 to play to lead 29-3.
Tennessee finally found the end zone with 7:26 to play — assisted by two pass-interference penalties against Alabama.
By the time Nick Stephens hit Josh Briscoe with a 10-yard TD pass there were mostly Alabama fans still around to see it.
“This is the best we’ve played, in my opinion, since the Clemson game,’’ Alabama coach Nick Saban said, referring to the season-opener.
“We played a complete game.’’
Stephens finished 16-of-28 passing for 137 yards. One bright note, Tennessee played turnover-free for the third consecutive game.
Defense and special teams dominated the first half.
Alabama’s Tiffin made both of his field-goal attempts, from 39 yards and 43 yards.
Tennessee’s Daniel Lincoln was only 1-of-3.
Lincoln’s 31-yard success came after Alabama’s Javier Arenas fumbled a punt return after a hit by LaMarcus Thompson.
Dennis Rogan recovered at the Alabama 5 and Tennessee became the final team among 119 in the Bowl Subdivision to recover a fumble in 2008.
But even that field-position gift wasn’t enough to ignite UT’s sluggish offense.
Arian Foster bolted to the 1 on first down, but the gain was wiped out and UT penalized 5 yards for a false start. Stephens was sacked on a third-down blitz, after which Lincoln’s kick tied the game 3-3.
“That was an opportunity right there to make something happen,’’ Fulmer said. “That would have given us great momentum.’’
“That was huge,’’ said Saban, “for the defense to get a stop right there.’’
The next special-teams gaffe belonged to Tennessee. Britton Colquitt shanked a punt 22 yards to give Alabama the ball at the UT 47.
It required only one first down to get in range for Tiffin’s 43-yard field goal and a 6-3 lead.
Alabama’s next punt was partially blocked by Montario Hardesty, rewarding the Vols excellent field position at the Tide’s 32.
Three snaps lost ground to the 34, from where Fulmer first sent the punt team on the field, then called timeout to reconsider.
Instead, Lincoln went out to try what would have been a career-long 51-yarder. It was well short and Alabama took over at the 34 with 5:44 on the clock.
“It (the distance) was a little bit of a stretch,’’ Fulmer said. “But at the 34 if you pooch (punt) and it goes in the end zone, that’s only a 14-yard gain.
“He (Lincoln) hit several of those (50-plus-yard attempts) in pregame but he just didn’t hit it well.’’
And thus left the door open for Alabama’s first touchdown drive.
Two quick completions to Julio Jones netted 54 yards and a first down at the UT 12. On fourth-and-1 at the 3, Coffee powered into the end zone for a 13-3 lead with 2:41 left.
Stephens finally found his range, completing three passes to get inside the Alabama 20.
He then hit Lucas Taylor for a first down at the 9. However, Taylor was penalized 15 yards for offensive pass interference.
“I’m not going to criticize the officials,’’ Fulmer said. “It must have been flagrant. It better have been flagrant.’’
When Lincoln was wide left from 43 yards as the half expired the Vols came up empty.
Another officiating call went against UT in the second half.
The Vols trailed 16-3 when Alabama’s Mark Ingram was hit and lost the football at the Tide’s 47. Eric Berry scooped it up and raced to the end zone.
Officials, however, ruled Ingram down before the fumble. A replay confirmed the call.
Next up for Tennessee is a visit to South Carolina.
“All I know,’’ Fulmer said, “is we’ll keep working to get it fixed.’’