Alabama's defense turned it up in the second half against Tennessee. –VolsXtra

Highs & Lows: Alabama vs. Tennessee

The Tennessee Volunteers came into this game against Alabama huge underdogs. All week, Volunteers coach Derek Dooley and his players praised the Crimson Tide, and lowered expectations for their performance. But at game time, the Vols were ready to play, and the Tide looked flat yet again in the first half.

Coach Saban received a lot of attention for his remarks to the press last week, in which he ripped reporters for not talking about the Alabama vs. Tennessee game. Saban didn’t want the Tide players looking ahead to LSU, but it seemed to be exactly what they were doing in the first half.

The Tide finally took the game over completely in the second half and forced Tennessee into submission. Alabama is now a perfect 8-0 heading into a bye week, after which LSU comes to town. During the post-game presser Saban said he was pleased with the play in the second half, and how the team responded.

Being totally dominant in the second half has become the staple of this team. This becomes a legitimate concern when breaking down the LSU game, as a slow start in two weeks could spell trouble. There are several areas that Alabama can improve on from this week, so let’s take a look at the Highs and Lows from Tennessee week.

LOWS

Starting slow.  This has become a point of frustration for Coach Saban. The Tide has made a bad habit of starting slow this year, but the fact that Alabama only gives up seven points per game makes this look better than it is. The defense was good one play and bad the next in the first half, and the Tide offense seemed out of sync as well.

Many are throwing praise Tennessee’s way for playing so well, but I’m not one of them. Most of the success they had was a more a result of poor play by Bama than it was good play by the Vols. This needs to be addressed before the Tide hosts LSU.

AJ’s early play.  McCarron threw for 284 yards and one TD and ran for another, but his first half play left lots to be desired. His first pass was an interception, and he overthrew an easy TD to Michael Williams. His receivers bailed him out many times.

AJ also has to learn to run the ball when the receivers are locked down. While he did finally tuck it and run for the end zone, there were many times he threw it away or took a sack instead of taking off. It will take a solid quarterback play to beat LSU, and being a threat to run adds another level to the offense. During the 2009 championship run, Greg McElroy  had to make many plays with his feet. If AJ holds the ball against LSU’s defense, he will be in trouble, and if he throws into double- and triple-coverage against the Tigers, they will make him pay.

First half defense.   In the first half, Tennessee had 66 yards rushing and seemed to throw the ball all over the field with their backup QB. The Vols made play after play in the passing game, and had some tough run yards. The first half defense can be described as a lack of concentration and execution. Of course the defense continued to bail itself out, but they seemed to be up and down the entire first half.

Costly penalties.  There weren’t flags flying everywhere, but there were untimely mistakes. A costly penalty by DeAndrew White negated a huge conversion by Marquis Maze. William Vlachos also had some untimely holding calls that took away positive yards in the red zone. And a face mask on third down kept alive a Tennessee drive. There is just too much veteran leadership on this team for those kinds of mistakes.

HIGHS

Receivers stepping up.   294 yards passing is a season high for the Crimson Tide receiving corps. Kenny Bell and Darius Hanks were nothing short of spectacular on Saturday night. Bell made several impressive catches, most notably a TD reception in the third quarter with the defender all over him. Hanks was a savior on several badly thrown passes, and had his best game of the year. Tight ends Smelley and Williams did a wonderful job as well, finding the soft spot in the zone defense and making positive yards after catch. (I include Williams even though he didn’t record a catch, as he was wide open in the end zone when AJ overthrew an easy touchdown.)

Defensive domination.   When this Tide defense does decide to play, they’re the best in the nation. They start slow but do a remarkable job of dictating what the opposing offense does. The Tide leads the nation in every major statistical category but turnovers. The backup and relief players on this defense are as good as any starting lineup anywhere. When these guys get a spark, it ignites a blaze of momentum and everyone gets in on it.

Dont’e Hightower finally got an interception on a Nico Johnson tip and had a nice return. There were a couple of forced fumbles caused by just plain hard hitting and the heads-up play is something they’ll definitely need against LSU.

Offensive Line.  The line did a wonderful job in this game against a determined Tennessee defensive front. With Anthony Steen out with a concussion, Alfred McCullough did a great job in relief. It’s a tall order for a lineman to step in and not miss a beat.

The line did a great job in pass protection as well. AJ is holding the ball a little too long which makes it hard on those big guys up front. Holding blocks when the quarterback is rolling out of the pocket is tough, and overall it was a great effort.

Special teams. Kick coverage was exceptional in this game, given the problems of the last two games. Bama didn’t have any big returns, but the Vols did a great job keeping the punts high and not giving Maze too many shots.

Kick coverage was good, and the fans cheered at actually seeing a touchback. The kicks weren’t what we would like to see, but were much more consistent. The coverage units were swarming once again and made huge hits on returns. Controlling that part of field position hasn’t hurt Alabama, but certainly makes it much more difficult on the defense, so the improvement was welcome.

Overall health.  With LSU coming to town in two weeks, there appear to be no major concerns. Freshman Cyrus Kouandjio left the game limping, and we don’t have a report on his status just yet. Linebacker Alex Watkins went to the locker room and returned with what seemed to be a cast on his arm. We’ll update the status of these guys as we get them. Eddie Lacy got some good reps Saturday night, and should be close to full strength.

The Tide will use the bye week to get healthy and work on fundamentals, and next week the preparation for LSU begins in earnest. The media hype machine is already in full swing. Meanwhile we will analyze and break down this matchup and keep everyone updated on the latest Tide news.

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