"Penalties absolutely killed us in the ballgame," Vol head coach Phillip Fulmer said on his post-game show, noting that seven of the infractions occurred in the red zone. "Those kinds of things will kill you."
So will the kind of slip-shod pass defense Tennessee played Saturday afternoon. Bama's John Parker Wilson, who ranks No. 9 among SEC quarterbacks in passer efficiency, carved up the Vols like a Thanksgiving turkey. He connected on a career-high 32 passes (in 46 attempts) for a career-high 363 yards and three touchdowns. He also scrambled six times for 28 yards.
Wilson's favorite target was DJ Hall, who caught a school-record 13 passes for 185 yards and two TDs. Given how potent its passing attack was, Bama didn't need much from its ground game. Still, Terry Grant rushed 26 times for 104 yards and a score.
All told, the Tide (6-2 overall, 4-1 SEC) scorched Tennessee's defense for 510 yards of total offense.
Afterward, Fulmer described himself as "very disappointed," adding: "We had practiced and prepared very well; we just couldn't get ourselves (defense) off the field ... and couldn't stay on the field on offense, either."
Indeed. Alabama compiled huge advantages in snaps (84 to 57) and time of possession (37:38 to 22:22).
Neither team was at full strength but only one seemed to suffer for it. Bama was without five suspended players, including two offensive line starters. Tennessee got just two catches for 15 yards from Lucas Taylor, who was limited by a turf toe after catching 11 balls for 186 yards a week earlier vs. Mississippi State. Another first-team receiver, Josh Briscoe, missed the second half vs. the Tide after suffering a first-half concussion.
Vol quarterback Erik Ainge completed 12 of 14 passes for 158 yards before intermission but was just 10 of 21 for 85 yards in the second half. Minus Taylor and Briscoe, the QB struggled to connect with Tennessee's youthful backups at the receiver positions.
"Anytime two of your top three receivers are struggling, that makes it difficult," Ainge said.
Gambling right out of the gate, Bama recovered an onsides kick on the game's opening kickoff, setting up a 39-yard Leigh Tiffin field goal that provided a quick 3-0 lead. Next, a roughing-the-passer penalty against Dan Williams extended a drive that gave Bama a touchdown and a 10-0 lead moments later.
Tennessee scored TDs on its next two possessions to go up 14-10, however. Arian Foster broke two 15-yard runs on the first march, then got the TD himself on a seven-yard burst. His 53-yard reception set up the second score, which came on a three-yard pass to tight end Luke Stocker.
The 14-10 lead proved to be the high point of the afternoon for Tennessee, however. Alabama outscored the Vols 31-3 thereafter to win going away.
An offsides penalty against Tennessee aided the Tide on an 86-yard drive that ended with a 16-yard TD pass from Wilson to Hall, giving Bama the lead for good at 17-14. An interference call against Eric Berry set up a two-yard toss to Hall on the Tide's next possession, widening the gap to 24-14.
Tennessee got a 42-yard Daniel Lincoln field goal just before halftime, narrowing the deficit to 24-17 and providing a flicker of hope. Bama dashed that hope, however, early in the third quarter. With the Vols apparently driving for a tying touchdown, freshman cornerback Kareem Jackson intercepted Ainge and returned the ball 31 yards.
"It was a good play," Ainge said. "Denarius (Moore) beat him, and I wasn't quite sure where the free safety was, so I didn't want to just lob it up there. I threw it hard – tried to stick it in there – and sometimes the defense makes good plays. He (Jackson) made a good catch."
Jackson's pick, coupled with a third-down holding penalty that gave Bama yet another drive-extending first down, set up the first of two Tiffin field goals that padded the lead to 30-17 by quarter's end. Bama then added an insurance TD and Tiffin's fourth field goal in the final period to close the scoring.
Despite a weak finish, Ainge completed 22 of 35 passes for 243 yards. Foster led the Vols in both rushing yards (91 on 13 carries) and receiving yards (74 on four catches).
Tennessee actually averaged more yards per play (6.4 to 6.1) than Alabama. The problem was that the Vols couldn't wrest the ball away from the Tide, whose offense was a step ahead of Tennessee's defense all afternoon.
"We had made some significant progress on defense the last two weeks," Fulmer mused, "but it didn't show up much today."