Vols slip by Tide
Photo by Rick Harris
Tennessee tailback Gerald Riggs gets free on a run around the right end.
By Wes Holtsclaw
KNOXVILLE--Cigar ashes may have covered the orange uniforms last night, but one thing's for certain, the Tennessee Volunteers didn't need any Tide to dust them off.
Saturday's annual meeting between Tennessee and Alabama wouldn't have disappointed many of the old-timers.
It was a defensive game with plenty of big hits from both sides.
The Vols took advantage early with a quick defensive score, providing ample offense and turnovers to hold off the Crimson Tide, 17-13, at Neyland Stadium.
"You've got to give Alabama a lot of credit, they played great," said Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer. "But it was a darn good defensive game. Our guys played resilient and tough, and found a way to get it done."
"It was a game we needed to keep our championship hopes alive," he said.
Much praise was given to Tennessee linebacker Kevin Burnett and defensive back Jason Allen, who recorded 11 and 15 tackles respectively in the game to spear the team's defensive efforts.
Defensive tackle Jesse Mahelona wasn't expected to play in the game, but came up with a big sack for a 15-yard loss in the fourth quarter, derailing an Alabama comeback attempt.
"We went out there and played to the best of our ability," said Burnett. "It was a typical Alabama-Tennessee game. We wanted to win. We had our backs against the wall, but we came through. The defense stepped up to the occasion."
As well as their defense played, Tennessee (6-1) didn't establish much offense, neither did 'Bama (5-3) for that matter.
The Vols only gained 63 yards on the ground compared to Alabama's 105 yards, 99 of which came from Kenneth Darby.
"Offensively, we've hit a wall that we've got to get over real soon," Fulmer said.
Arguably, the lone bright spot of Tennessee's offense was the play of its receiving corps, in particular Jayson Swain.
Swain had five grabs for 80 yards including 19-yard touchdown grab from Erik Ainge late in the second quarter to give the Vols the permanent lead.
"I knew we had to go out there and make plays," said Swain, who hails from Huntsville, Alabama. "We had to be patient and use great technique."
Ainge had an off day, completing 10-of-22 passes with two interceptions for 132 yards.
Tennessee didn't waste no time getting on the board when Turk McBride hit Bama quarterback Spencer Pennington on the first drive of the game.
Pennington coughed it up to Parys Haralson, who took the ball 18 yards for the opening score.
"My big headed roommate, he's crazy," Burnett said of Haralson. "We went out there and Parys said, 'Watch me score a touchdown,' and he did."
The Tide came back later in the first quarter when Tennessee receiver Tony Brown deflected an Ainge throw into the hands of Alabama linebacker DeMeco Ryans.
It put the squad in solid field position and they capitalized.
Pennington found Tyrone Prothro with a 22-yard pass to set up a two-yard plow into the checkerboard from Tim Castille to tie things up at seven.
Bama held the Vols to a punt on their next drive, then moved the ball successfully back into the Tennessee red zone. The Vols stepped up their defense and held Bama to a 35-yard field goal from Brian Bostick at the top of the second quarter.
Tennessee found a successful drive before the half when Derrick Tinsley returned a punt 45 yards, setting up Swain's 19-yard scoring grab.
On the first drive of the second half, Ainge showed some pizzazz with throws to Brown and Ainge, setting up James Wilhoit with a 41-yard field goal to make it a 17-10 game.
The Vols had a successful second drive, moving the ball inside the ten yard line due to runs from Gerald Riggs and some grabs from Swain.
However, Ainge was picked of by Cornelius Wortham at the two-yard line.
Bama drove the length of the field with big runs from Darby to put the team in position for a touchdown. Mahelona stepped up with his big sack to force a season-best 47-yard field goal from Bostick to make it 17-13 with 6:26 left.
Instead of running the clock down, the Vols made some bad calls and were held on downs. It gave Bama a chance at victory.
A roughing the passer penalty put the visiting unit into Volunteer territory. Tennessee lucked up when Corey Campbell made a game-saving interception.
"I feel like I've stepped up as a person and helped the defense toward a championship," Hendersonville's Campbell said. "I feel like the defense had to step up. Today before the game Coach Fulmer was talking about this being a championship game. That got everyone excited."
It was a tough loss for Alabama, but the squad's coach, Mike Shula, saw some positives in the team's loss.
"There's some disappointed guys in that dressing room. It was a great effort on our part," Shula said.
"Today answered a lot of questions that we're doing a pretty good job on defense," he said. "You have to give Tennessee a lot of credit. Tennessee was a lot of the reason we didn't play as well. They're the best team we've played.
As far as the offseason extracurricular activities between Tennessee coach Fulmer and the Alabama program, those things were kind of eased with the home win.
"It's a monkey off of his back," Burnett said of Fulmer's situation. "I know he's glad to have this win. It's a deep-rooted rivalry."
"All of that stuff is irrelevant to what happened between the lines," the coach added. "It was two great programs competing against each other."
Needless to say, Fulmer continued his Alabama post-game ritual by passing out cigars to the players.
"I just turned 18, so I didn't take one," freshman quarterback Erik Ainge joked.