Two big catches and a well-blocked 14-yard touchdown run by Alabama Crimson Tide running back Derrick Henry on the game's critical drive helped the Tide hold off a late Tenneesse Volunteers comeback for a 19-14 home win.
Wide receivers Ardarius Stewart and Calvin Ridley were the true late stars for the Crimson Tide, as quarterback Jacob Coker put up jump balls for both on that final drive. Stewart came down with a 29-yard catch to get the drive rolling and then Ridley converted a 3rd and 6 with his 15-yard contribution to set up Henry's decisive run.
Coker finished 21-of-27 for 246 yards in another efficient performance that is increasingly becoming the norm for him as he settles into the starting role in Tuscaloosa.
When Tennessee running back Jalen Hurd ran right for a 12-yard touchdown and 14-13 lead late in the fourth quarter, the upset-minded Volunteers' hopes of toppling No. 8-ranked Alabama calcified into true belief that head coach Butch Jones and his team could pull off a second-straight victory against a ranked opponent.
Following the 38-31 victory over then-No. 19 Georgia, Tennessee faced a much bigger challenge in defeating an Alabama team at home that was coming off a resounding road victory of its own against Texas A&M last weekend. In the end, the big plays from the Bama wide receivers and quarterback were too much for the road team to overcome.
The final opportunity for Tennessee fell apart when Alabama defensive lineman Jonathan Allen caused a sack and the ensuing play resulted in another sack, strip, and Crimson Tide recovery to seal the victory.
A staunch defensive interior and just enough plays offensively were aided by some poor tackling and four dropped interceptions by Alabama, but in the end, it merely afforded Tennessee a late lead instead of an upset victory.
What's remarkable about Henry's year is that for most of the game, Volunteers defensive coordinator John Jancek and his group were seemingly able to slow down the bruising 6'3, 243-pounder. Yet, The Alabama star finished with 28 carries for 148 yards and two touchdowns.
Dropping a safety close to the line of scrimmage to outnumber the run and then keeping the other safety deep to avoid giving up plays over the top was a big part of the Tennessee defensive strategy. Throughout the game, though, it wasn't the extra safety in the box that made the difference, as the interior of the Tennessee defense was good enough to keep the Alabama rushing attack from creating separation. Considering Henry's skills and the fact that Alabama entered the game ranked No. 22 nationally in rush S&P+ and went over the 200-yard mark in four of the first seven games, Tennessee faced a difficult task defensively and held up ably overall.
The two teams battled to a 7-7 stalemate in the first half, often trading field position and generally exchanging punches on the ground. Tennessee came out on top in that area behind a strong first half and scored on a grinding, 10-play, 75-yard drive on its second possession when quarterback Joshua Dobbs hit wide receiver Josh Smith for an 11-yard touchdown on 3rd and 8.
Alabama had held on the first Tennessee possesion, then countered with a nicely balanced drive that Henry finished with a 20-yard touchdown run.
In the third quarter, the Volunteers defense bent but did not break when the Crimson Tide passing attack got the offense inside the Tennessee red zone with a 26-yard pass to Stewart. After moving the ball down to the 1-yard line with a pass to tight end OJ Howard, Alabama wasn't able top punch it in with a run or a pass and had to settle for a field goal to take a 10-7 lead.
Offensively, Tennessee lived a dangerous existence throughout the game, as Dobbs narrowly avoided throwing four interceptions, including one that hit star Alabama safety Minkah Fitzpatrick right in the chest. Last week, the Tide made those plays and returned them for touchdowns against Texas A&M. This Saturday, the balls ended up on the ground.
However, a missed 37-yard field goal by Tennessee allowed Alabama to maintain the 10-7 margin leading into a critical possession at the start of the first quarter. Two penalties put the Crimson Tide behind the chains, but Henry found some consistent openings and wide receiver Calvin Ridley provided a another 26-yard catch to find the red zone.
As Jancek's defense did on the previous red-zone trip, the defense held to force a force field goal and keep the Volunteers within a touchdown of taking the lead.
Despite those valiant stops, the game-changing drive wasn't the effort that gave Tennessee the lead, it was the Alabama offense making the plays that determined the outcome.
So the Volunteers will have to regroup after suffering a fourth loss of seven or fewer points, while the Crimson Tide will get a bye week to prepare for a match up with the LSU Tigers in Tuscaloosa that could determine the SEC West champion and position the winner as the likely conference entry into the College Football Playoff.