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Initial Impressions: Alabama fends off Tennessee

Final Score: 58-21

NCAA Football: Alabama at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

The two biggest storylines going into this game were how much Tua Tagovialoa would play with his “tweaked” knee, and the punter drama of freshman Skyler DeLong getting demoted for walk on Mike Bernier. Both questions got answered, Alabama took care of business, and there were no new injuries to my knowledge.

Josh Jacobs opened up the game with a 42 yard kick return that put Alabama near midfield from the onset. A couple of first down plays in a quick pass to Irv Smith and a 16 yard run from Jacobs, who started over Damien Harris, had Alabama deep into Tennessee territory and looking for yet another quick-strike TD to start the game to keep up the trend of 2018.

Instead, Tua’s rifle seemed to be a little miscalibrated on the high side as he overthrew Henry Ruggs and Jerry Jeudy on back to back plays. Instead of letting it get to him, he worked through like 10 progressions on 3rd down before settling on Jaylen Waddle, who slipped his way forward to just pick up the first down. After a few more runs from Jacobs, Tua had the ball on 2nd down at the 11 yard line. He drifted left, then drifted back right in a 7-second display of perfect pass protection before lofting a fade to Jeudy in the back right corner of the endzone.

The Vols, led by Jarrett Guarantano, opened up with two straight incompletions, then Guarantano was sacked by blitzing Xavier McKinney, who forced a fumble that was recovered by Christian Miller. Josh Jacobs made the last 3 yards mince meat, and the Tide was suddenly up 14-0.

Tennessee responded with a quick three and out, to which Tua one-upped them with an even quicker 77 yard deep post in between two defenders to Jaylen Waddle, who, by the way, runs much faster than everyone else. Of all of Tua’s beautiful throws, this one was at least top 5.

The Volunteers went three and out again, and, as pointed out by Gary Danielson, had less positive plays than Alabama had touchdowns.

Unfortunately, a good punt return from Waddle was wiped out by a rather egregious block in the back, and Alabama was pinned at their own 7 yard line. No matter. The offense was really looking for some longer field position to hopefully get some extra yards and pad the stats anyway. Najee Harris (Damien Harris is still MIA at this point) took the first play for 8 yards. A dubious personal foul on Tennessee gave the Tide some extra breathing room, and Tua hit Jerry Jeudy on a couple of passes for 46 total yards. He then fired high again, this time missing Irv Smith. Then Hale Hentges dropped and easy slant for a first down as he tried to tuck the ball with a little too much force.

Then for what felt like the 100th time this season on 3rd and long, Tua threw a check down to Damien Harris on a swing route, who finally appeared just for this moment and trucked a defender for a first down. Damien took the next carry the final 3 yards for a touchdown.

Alabama held Tennessee to a three and out again, but an offsides gave the Volunteers a first down, and Guarantano heaved a ball down the side line to Juaun Jennings, who made a rather impressive catch, despite great coverage from Saivion Smith. They eventually punted though, and the world resumed spinning as it should. The punt pinned Alabama inside their own ten yard line again, and this time Najee Harris was unable to slip his way forward for any yards on two straight plays, and then Tua missed Waddle on an easy RPO slant. It was kind of hard to tell if Tua just fired too far out in front, or if Waddle was slow on his route (he did hesitate). Either way, Alabama finally got their first look at punter Mike Bernier. He hit the ball 41 yards. A solid punt, even if the delivery was excruciatingly slow.

With great field position and all the momentum in the world (it works if you don’t look at the scoreboard), Tennessee opened with a nice 9 yard run, and things were looking up until a personal foul was called and they went backwards 15 yards. They wound up punting again and this time it was a shank to put any of DeLong’s to shame. A glorious 13 yarder that didn’t even cross the first down line.

Alabama did the same, punting after a 3 and out. Tua very nearly pulled a Johnny Manziel-esque play after escaping like three rushers and lobbing one across the field to Damien Harris, but the back got a little twisted up trying to get it over his shoulder and the ball hit the turf.

A very questionable defensive holding on Deionte Thompson negated a sack from Quinnen Williams, and Guarantano responded by launching a beauty down the right sideline to Josh Palmer for 30 yards. Guarantano was decleated by human missile Mack Wilson, and Palmer managed to hang on to the ball despite Saivion Smith being right up in his grill and even hooking his arm around the ball. It was a great play for the Vols, but costly. Both Guarantano and Palmer wound up exiting the game due to injury. However, instead of wilting without their QB, Keller Chryst came in and calmly delivered a 26 yard strike and a 10 yard touchdown to running back Ty Chandler, who was an absolute mismatch in the passing game on Alabama’s linebackers. Suddenly, Alabama had punted 2 drives in a row and Tennessee just marched down and scored to make it a 21-point game. Some fans would be happy with that, but us Tide fans started getting nervous.

Then the unthinkable almost happen. Jeremy Pruitt called an unexpected onside kick. We all held our collective breaths as the Volunteer player caught the ball, tried to run with it, and fumbled as he went down. Fortunately, instead of having to review the myriad of things that would have come with that, the refs realized that the ball had bounced off of the Volunteer player’s chest before it went 10 yards, and it was all a moot point.

All the air that had been slowly being pumped into Tennessee’s confidence was let out in that one balloon pop, and Josh Jacobs grindingly drove the ball in the final 43 yards, with help from one 12 yard catch by Henry Ruggs.

To his credit, Chryst walked right back onto the field with 4 minutes left in the half and starting slinging darts all over the field. He hit Juaun Jennings on back to back chunk plays for 63 yards, including one where Jennings broke about 72 tackles and then fumbled at the end but came up with the ball at the bottom of the pile anyway. He then threw a seam route to Tyler Byrd for 20 yards for the score. Thompson tried to stop the score, and was nearly ejected for targeting because Byrd lowered his head into Thompson, who was aiming at his torso.

With 2:00 minutes left in the half, Gary Danielson pointed out that it was really the worst thing Tennessee could have done to themselves, as now Tua had to throw the ball. He scrambled for a first down to get the drive rolling, then ripped off 5 straight completions for 65 yards. Two were just quick outs to Irv Smith that were effectively spikes, except Tua doesn’t like plays that don’t gain yards.

After a timeout with 19 seconds left, he lobbed one the final 9 yards to Irv Smith in the back of the endzone, and Alabama went up 42-14 at half time.

Tennesse opened the second half with a comedy of errors that were Ty Chandler illegally calling fair catch on the 3 yard line, then Keller Chryst tripping into the endzone trying to run a toss play.

Alabama got the ball after the safety, and after a couple of quick gains to Jaylen Waddle, Tua Tagovailoa navigated around in the pocket and launched a 41 yard touchdown strike to Henry Ruggs while taking a rather nasty hit. Tua was a little slow to get up from that one, and with Alabama up 51-14, everyone knew it was Jalen Hurts time.

Unfortunately, his first pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage, and then fluttered right into the hands of a defensive lineman. Instead of trying to tackle him, everyone on Alabama tried to strip the ball and he eventually struggled his way for 27 yards and a touchdown.

Hurts wasn’t to be rattled though, and opened up with a 12 yard strike to Ruggs, and the rest was all Najee Harris. He had one run where he hurdled a man, sidestepped the next before he was even all the way to the ground, and then stiff-armed a 3rd into oblivion. He took 5 straight carries for 40 yards. Then Hurts dropped back to pass, stepped up, and scrambled around right end, out racing everyone for a 21 yard touchdown.

After that, everyone was just trying to end the game. Alabama had a 14 play drive that consisted of 13 straight runs from Brian Robinson that lasted nearly 10 minutes and didn’t even score any points.

I got a little wordy with the recap this time, so I’ll keep my thoughts short.

Damien Harris being third in line was kind of weird, and there’s nothing to indicate an injury. Tua, the receivers, and the offensive line were all brilliant, and there’s literally nothing to be said about them. Tua seemed more off than usual, misfiring high quite often, and still completed 23 of his passes for 306 yards and 4 TDs, with a YPA of 10.6.

Devonta Smith sat the game out and resting his hamstring. Tua played nearly the whole game without his knee visibly bothering him, but the final TD to Ruggs might have tweaked it again. Hindsight is always 20/20, but it would have probably been better if he had come out of the game before that drive. Lester Cotton also sat out for Deonte Brown, who did a great job.

Defensively, the front 7 got all kinds of pressure on Guarantano. They lost the running backs in the passing game a few times, which is really becoming a frustrating trend. Bulovas didn’t get to attempt a field goal, and Mike Bernier was solid if not spectacular punting the ball, which is what this team needs.

Now they get a week off to rest and heal up for LSU and the usual November slate that also includes Mississippi State and Auburn. All three will likely challenge the Tide more than any other team so far this season, so getting healthier is absolutely the top priority now.

Roll Tide!