UT didn't let history repeat

It was the kind of game that has frustrated Tennessee so often throughout the series with Alabama. You're favored, you can't find your offense, you blow opportunity after opportunity, and the Crimson Tide makes the key play to win in the fourth quarter.

You saw it last year in Tuscaloosa. You saw it in 1990 in Knoxville and 1991 in Legion Field. You saw it again in 1993.

You could see it happening Saturday night before more than 106,000 I-can't-believe-this-is-happening fans at Neyland Stadium.

But Tennessee wasn't about to let history repeat. The Vols finally managed to cash in on a 1-yard plunge by Arian Foster with 3:28, then shut down two Alabama possessions to avoid the upset bug and move to 6-1 overall, 2-1 in SEC play.

Tennessee drove into Alabama territory nine times before finding the end zone, ending a touchdown drought of at least 142 minutes against the Tide. It was a gut-check 70-yard drive against a determined Bama team that looked nothing like the squad that sleep walked through a close win against Duke and needed overtime to beat lowly Ole Miss.

As the Vols huddled for that game-winning drive, quarterback Erik Ainge said: ``I told them, `If there is anyone out here who doesn't think we're gonna score, then go get a sub because we're gonna score a touchdown.' They knew it. You could just look in the guys' eyes. Everyone knew we were gonna get it done.

``That's not a cocky thing. We've been there before, we've done it and we know we're going to get it done. That's the attitude we have.''

It's an attitude that served Tennessee well. It's not an attitude that existed a year ago. In 2005, Tennessee loses a game like this. In fact, it did, 6-3, to Alabama. But this is a different Tennessee team, a more confident team, a team with more heart and character. Determination has replaced doubt. Confidence has replaced concern.

``To me,'' Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said, ``if says a lot when you don't play and you have enough chemistry to win.''

Indeed, it was Tennessee's -- and Ainge's worst -- offensive game of the season. The Vols had trouble running once again, netting 57 yards on 21 carries. And Ainge had trouble finding his receivers. He threw three first-half interceptions. He failed to cash in on point-blank field position.

But when it counted most, he engineered a 70-yard drive to provide Fulmer with his 11th victory over rival Alabama.

When Tennessee offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe walked into the post-game interview room, he pointed to defensive coordinator John Chavis and said: ``You guys should be talking to him.''

Cutcliffe blamed himself for not putting Tennessee in position to be successful. He said Alabama ran more four-man front than anticipated, and that the Vols had trouble getting into a rhythm.

After scoring 51 at Georgia, were the Vols rusty after an open-date?

Cutcliffe thought that might have been the case. But he was more concerned that UT had not practiced well during the week and the Vols were certainly out of sync against the Tide.

Although Ainge finished 28 of 46 for 302 yards, he clearly wasn't as sharp as he had been through much of the season in building up a 69 percent completion ratio and No. 7 national pass efficiency rating.

Receiver Robert Meachem, who had six receptions for 87 yards, said Ainge can't get hyped or it will hurt his performance.

``When Erik's real excited,'' Meachem said, ``sometimes things go right and sometimes things go wrong. When he's calm, you can see what happens. We score touchdowns. Nobody can stop him.

``I'm gonna start taking it upon myself to keep calm before games, even on the Vol Walk, so we can score some points. Because when he's real excited, you never know what he's gonna do. Everything looks so big to him. Every receiver looks so open. And he makes bad judgments at times when he's excited.''

Chavis didn't have many bad judgments. He was on top of his game, shutting down Kenneth Darby and the Alabama attack. Darby, No. 3 on the Tide's all-time rushing list, had 26 yards on 14 carries. Alabama rushed for 53 yards on 30 attempts and finished with 211 total yards.

Tennessee's defense held Alabama to a field goal after an interception return set the Tide up at the UT 8-yard line, then sacked John Parker Wilson twice on the final drive to seal the deal.

After the defense had played so well a year ago against Alabama but couldn't finish in a 6-3 defeat, Saturday's two late stops were pleasing to Chavis and his unit.

``If you're a good team,'' Fulmer said, ``you find a way to win these games.''

Tennessee proved Saturday night it was a good team – even when it didn't play its best.


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