Tide looks to play 'keep-away'

Given that Tennessee has superior talent, a better record, a top-10 ranking and the home-field advantage, you're probably wondering how a 12-point underdog Alabama squad can hang with the Volunteers.

Answer: The same way Air Force did. Tennessee's high-octane offense can't score without the ball. Air Force played "keep-away," controlling the ball so well Sept. 9 that the Vols got just six full possessions. They scored on five of these – four touchdowns and a field goal – yet barely won the game 31-30.

Alabama's game plan will be virtually identical. The Tide leads the Southeastern Conference in time of possession, averaging 33 minutes and 37 seconds per game. That means their opponents have the ball just 26 minutes per game.

If Bama can control the ball Saturday at Neyland Stadium, that could neutralize the seventh-ranked Vols' explosive attack and enable the Tide to stay within striking distance.

"They're keeping the ball about 34 minutes on average," Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer notes. "We can't let that happen….Third-down-and-short situations are going to be absolutely crucial."

Alabama's ball-control offense relies heavily on a talented tailback (Kenneth Darby) and a quarterback (John Parker Wilson) who can nickel and dime you to death. The first order of business is to slow down Darby, who burned UT for 86 yards in last year's win at Tuscaloosa.

"We're real focused on stopping the run, which we have been somewhat inconsistent doing at times," Fulmer says. "This needs to be our best effort of the year as we take on their offensive line, Darby, the tight ends, the fullbacks and so on. We've got a real challenge there."

Darby is a 5-11, 215-pound senior who is tough to bring down once he builds a head of steam.

"To tackle him before he gets started is a real challenge," Fulmer says. "The fundamentals of claiming our gaps, holding our gaps and tackling are going to be really crucial in this game. He's one of the better backs we'll face. He's right there at the top of the list."

Through Bama's first seven games Darby has a whopping 134 carries. That's 13 more than Tennessee's two busiest tailbacks – Montario Hardesty (64) and LaMarcus Coker (57) combined.

"Darby knows what to do with the ball, and they feed it to him," Vol defensive coordinator John Chavis says. "He's a hardnosed, physical guy that has tremendous feet. He can move sideways as quick as anybody and accelerate down the field. And he's a tremendous competitor. That's the thing you're most impressed with – how hard he competes."

Tennessee seems to be catching Darby at a bad time. He cracked the 100-yard barrier each of the past two weekends, rushing for 115 vs. Duke in Game 6 and 162 vs. Ole Miss in Game 7.

Conversely, Darby seems to be catching Tennessee at a good time. One defensive tackle (Justin Harrell) is out for the year with a ruptured bicep and another (Turk McBride) is nursing a hip injury. As a result, the Vols' rushing defense may be vulnerable.

"We've made some strides but we're not by any stretch of the imagination where we've been in the past or where we want to be," Chavis says. "We're closer but we'll find out (how close) Saturday because they're going to test us. There's no question about that."

Asked if Tennessee's biggest challenge against the Tide ground game is mental or physical, Chavis shrugged.

"I think it's some of both," he says. "If you can't get lined up, that's mental. When you do get lined up and you get whipped, that's physical. It's a little bit of both. We haven't gotten whipped that bad, but there's been times when we've been knocked around a little bit in our front seven."

If the Vols get "knocked around" Saturday afternoon, Alabama may be able to run the ball well enough to control the clock and keep Tennessee's offense off the field. It could be Air Force all over again.

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