Players Weren’t Always On Same Page

KNOXVILLE – For a while, things got hairy in Knoxville, as the Tennessee Vols cut a 27-point deficit to 10 in the third quarter. Fourth-ranked Alabama responded with a 76-yard, 18-play drive that essentially ended matters in a 34-20-win over Tennessee Saturday night. Though not clean at times, it was clearly the Tide’s best road effort of the season.

“We weren’t communicating like we should, but then we ended up communicating better later in the game, and everybody getting on the same page,” said Alabama junior linebacker Reggie Ragland. “We’ve got to keep bringing the fight to them, instead of them bringing the fight to us.” Ragland, who led Alabama with nine tackles, said he did notice a team that played a better, though not cleaner, game on the road, and said he knows why. “Everybody’s been more relaxed and more focused,” he said. “We’re not worrying about ‘I.’ It’s all about ‘we.’ Everybody’s watching film more, too.”

Junior cornerback Cyrus Jones, who had a big interception, preached a similar sermon on communication. “The defense is all about being on the same page,” he said. “We have to be resilient the whole game, and play all 60 minutes. You have to understand, (opponents) are going to make some plays. You have to be ready to play the next play.” Junior safety Landon Collins made four stops for the Tide, and he seemed happy about the defense’s performance, and how it adjusted to the insertion of athletic Vols quarterback Joshua Dobbs. “We definitely came out strong early,” said Collins. “We had to get back into it. We had to show this game wasn’t over with and they were not coming back. We were fighting hard. We just showed we were ready and played dominant defense and continued all four quarters.

“(Dobbs) was a different quarterback than we were expecting. We had to adjust our calls and then expected more runs.”

Senior quarterback Blake Sims made some big plays on that 76-yard march, including one where he dove over a Vol defender on third down to keep the march alive. “If nobody’s open, I just try to use my legs and do whatever I can,” said Sims, who threw for 286 yards on 14-24 passing and added 42 net yards on the ground. “I thought the team responded very well (on the 76-yard drive). We have to take the right steps, make the right blocks and get the ball in the hands of the playmakers.” One such playmaker was junior receiver Amari Cooper, who caught 9 balls for 224 yards and two touchdowns, including an 80-yarder to open the scoring. “We just tried to take advantage of some things we worked on in practice,” Cooper said after setting the Alabama school record for single-game receiving yardage. “On that first play, the linebacker blitzed. I knew it was going to be a big play, but I didn’t know I was going to score.

“As a receiver, you want the ball in critical moments. I always try to run my best routes on third down, and get open.”

Cooper said he enjoys the atmosphere in Knoxville’s Neyland Stadium. “I love playing in this stadium, with all these people,” he said.

Cooper also had kind words for his quarterback. “Blake (Sims) has gotten better every single week,” Cooper noted. “We’ve been able to develop some rhythm. He’s such a good person. That’s what I love about (Sims).”

Regarding the team’s improvement in attitude and performance since the loss at Ole Miss, Cooper said. “I think we became more of a team in the fourth quarter of the Arkansas game. We came together. We were excited after big plays, and from that point on, we kept getting better.”

The Tide offensive line had to make an adjustment when starting left tackle Cam Robinson left the game in the third quarter with a high ankle sprain. Right guard Leon Brown moved to left tackle, and Bradley Bozeman, who played the last two and a half games at center, entered the game at right guard. Starting center Ryan Kelly, who returned to action Saturday, said that was by design. “Leon (Brown) has been a good switch guy between guard and tackle since he’s been here,” Kelly said. “He and Bradley Bozeman both did a good job tonight.” The makeshift line was on the field for the 76-yard drive that iced the game.

Most of the Alabama players interviewed were asked about the possible distraction of Offensive Coordinator Lane Kiffin’s return to Knoxville for the first time since January, 2010. Kelly has apparently been listening to his Head Coach, Nick Saban. He was ready for that query about Kiffin. “It doesn’t affect you unless you let it affect you,” he said. “We just wanted to come out and play physical and play hard.” After rolling up a 2014 road best 469 yards of offense in front of a hostile crowd, including the drive to take them out of the game, it’s fair to say Kelly and his teammates succeeded in that mission, despite two turnovers and six penalties.

Alabama (7-1, 4-1 SEC) will have a bye week to work on healing injuries like Robinson’s ankle, senior tight end Brian Vogler’s sprained knee, and senior receiver/returner Christion Jones’ tweaked hamstring that kept him out the whole game. The No. 4 Tide is next in action in Baton Rouge Nov. 8 against an LSU team that upset Ole Miss 10-7 Saturday, after learning of the death of Head Coach Les Miles’ mother earlier in the day.

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