Defense carries offense to 13th straight win over Vols


CW / Joe Will Field

For all the times Alabama’s transcendent offense has carried the defense, it was about time the defense returned the favor.

With superstar quarterback Tua Tagovailoa out of the game after sustaining an ankle injury on a second-quarter sack, Alabama’s defense outscored Tennessee’s offense over the Vols’ next five drives en route to a 35-13 victory the Crimson Tide’s 13th straight over its longtime rival.

“It was good that we had that challenge that we had to face,” senior corner Trevon Diggs said. “We had to really step it up and test our defense and see where our heart was. We got a lot of guys with a lot of heart.”

Alabama led 28-13 midway through the fourth quarter, but Tennessee was in the midst of an eight-minute, 14-play drive to get back within one score.

The 14th play of the drive was a fourth-and-goal quarterback sneak from the 1-yard line. Vols quarterback Jarrett Guarantano tried to jump over the pile, but freshman linebacker Shane Lee popped the ball out. 

Diggs spotted it immediately and made a play he’ll remember for a lifetime: a 100-plus-yard fumble return for a touchdown.

“I seen the ball, scooped it and scored,” Diggs said. “… It was a lot of green grass and everyone was on the inside bunched up. It was probably my favorite play since I’ve been here.”

The touchdown extended the Crimson Tide’s lead to 22 points when it just as easily could’ve been eight. It capped a strong statement from the defense, which had shown cracks in its previous three SEC games, allowing more than 20 points and 380 yards in each.

After Tagovailoa went to the locker room, the defense forced three three-and-outs, scored on Diggs’ return and allowed just one field goal.

Tennessee did have its opportunities throughout the game, driving inside Alabama’s 7-yard line four times. But two of those ended in field goals due to a false start and two holding penalties, and the last one resulted in seven points the other way.

After the game, coach Nick Saban said the defense played “a lot better” except in one situation: third down.

Tennessee was 7-for-15 in converting third downs, not including a pass interference penalty by sophomore corner Patrick Surtain II that gave the Vols first-and-10 inside the 20-yard line instead of fourth-and-10 from the 34.

“We had too many opportunities to get off the field on third down,” Saban said. “… It kept a lot of their drives going and that helped them maintain possession of the ball and in some cases, affect field position.”

After Alabama went three-and-out on its first possession of the second half, it punted from its own 13-yard line. The punter was not freshman Will Reichard, who re-injured his hip flexor on his only punt of the game, nor was it sophomore Skyler DeLong

It was third-string walk-on Ty Perine. All the freshman from Prattville did was boot a 42-yarder across midfield, drawing a fair catch and one of the loudest cheers of the afternoon.

Following another three-and-out at the end of the third quarter, Perine struck again, booming a 51-yard punt to the Tennessee 12-yard line. As Tennessee’s returner began weaving upfield, Perine came sprinting in as the last line of defense and made the tackle himself.

“I saw [Perine] punt two punts and he punted them really, really well,” Saban said. “I mean, really well. … We thought that it’s time for him to get an opportunity based on some of the struggles that we’ve had at that position.”

Redshirt junior Terrell Lewis had a career game, tying his career highs with seven total tackles and two sacks.

Lewis forced a Tennessee three-and-out late in the third quarter with an eight-yard sack while Alabama was leading 28-13. After Diggs’ touchdown return, Lewis forced another three-and-out with a 12-yard sack that gave the Crimson Tide the ball back with five minutes left, leading by three scores.

“Man, it’s fun. It’s really my last time getting to play Tennessee and then at the same time, my first time really playing against them,” Lewis said. “To me, it was really just a fun game.”