TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – If the recent overtime loss to Georgia and the win over South Carolina were signs of the progress Tennessee has made under Butch Jones, Saturday’s 45-10 loss to Alabama shows just how far the Vols still have to go.
Top-ranked Alabama (8-0, 5-0 SEC) scored early and often against an overmatched Tennessee squad. It was 21-0 Alabama by the end of the first quarter. It was virtually over by halftime when the Tide took a 35-0 edge into the break.
The Tide wasted little time putting UT (4-4, 1-3) in a hole.
“To their credit, Alabama has been a fast-start football team,” said UT coach Butch Jones. “We spoke about that all week. You can’t make mistakes – every mistake you make against a good football team is magnified. We didn’t help our own cause. We didn’t perform well.”
Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron found receiver Amari Cooper on a short pass that he quickly turned into a 54-yard touchdown after a sprint down the right sideline early in the first quarter. Alabama would score on its next three drives as well – two short touchdown runs by running back T.J. Yeldon and a 22-yard catch by receiver Kevin Norwood.
Tennessee finally caught a break when Alabama running back Kenyan Drake fumbled at the 1 while lunging for the goal line. The Vols sustained a nice drive that made it inside Alabama’s 30, but a Justin Worley interception – his second of the first half – was returned for an 89-yard touchdown by safety Landon Collins, essentially ending any prayer of a UT comeback.
“I thought we played the worst half of football that we have all year,” said Jones, speaking of the first 30 minutes of the game. “Some of it was due to the quality of our opponent and some of it was self-inflicted wounds.”
The Vols returned in the second half with true freshman quarterback Joshua Dobbs at the helm. Worley, who wore gloves all week in practice after banging his hand on a helmet last week against South Carolina, aggravated the injury late in the first half and didn’t return.
Jones clarified that Worley could’ve gone back in the game if needed, but his injury limited his ability to get velocity on the ball.
Dobbs, at times, showed why he was a highly-coveted high school recruit with several impressive throws and runs. He led UT on two scoring drives – including the first touchdown scored by an opponent all season at Bryant-Denny Stadium – to end Alabama’s shutout bid in the second half. A 3-yard touchdown run by Rajion Neal and a 37-yard field goal by Michael Palardy accounted for UT’s season-low total of 10 points.
“I thought under the circumstances, I’ll know more when I see the film, but I thought Josh did some good things for us,” said Jones. “I thought he was for the most part accurate and he managed the offense. For a true freshman coming in this environment – I was very proud of how he handled the circumstances.”
“We all came to [Dobbs] at halftime and told him we believe in you – just go in there and be poised,” added junior left tackle Tiny Richardson. “He’s not a very arrogant or pompous type of person. He’s very humble. We just told him that we believed in him. He executed well.”
Now the Vols prepare to head to No. 5 Missouri next week with more uncertainty at quarterback and questions about how they’ll respond after suffering their worst SEC defeat since falling 49-7 at Arkansas in 2011. Jones said Dobbs, who completed 5-of-12 passes for 75 yards and ran for 19 yards, certainly played well enough to merit consideration at quarterback going forward.
“I’m concerned about a lot of things,” said Jones. “I’m concerned about our performance, I’m concerned about being a beat-up football team, but the one thing I’m not concerned about is the resiliency of our football team. We’ll bounce back.
“We’re going to come back tomorrow and work to become a better football team. We’ve got to get to a bowl game. That’s what we’re pushing for each and every day.”
"It's football," added Richardson. "Sometimes things don't go as expected. We just have to snap and clear and we'll beat Missouri."
• Safety Byron Moore sprained his ankle and safety Brian Randolph injured his shoulder during the game, Jones confirmed. Randolph missed some time in the first half but returned in the second. Moore left the field on crutches after the game.
• Defensive tackle Trevarris Saulsberry (knee) played for the first time since Week 3 at Oregon. Receiver Josh Smith (hamstring) also played after missing last week against South Carolina.
• Jones said it was “coach’s decision” as to why Dobbs went into the game over fellow true freshman Riley Ferguson. Ferguson has received more second-team reps than Dobbs in practice over the course of the season, but he’s also been limited in practice this week and had a wrap on his leg on Saturday. It’s unclear if that injury played into the decision or not.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga
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