For three quarters, Tennessee went toe to toe with No. 4 Alabama in Tuscaloosa. During the last quarter, their lack of depth caught up with them and the Crimson Tide did what they do.
Tennessee was down 31-24 in the fourth quarter before the wheels fell off. Hendon Hooker and his receiver appeared to have a miscommunication, and Hooker fired a back breaking interception. After that, it was all Alabama.
But before that, Tennessee answered every score and then some. Tim Banks’ defense came up big with key turnovers and Mike Ekeler’s unit found a blocked punt. The offense, was good enough through three quarters, connecting on multiple big passes to score three touchdowns.
Hendon Hooker was hurting and it was obvious. He was hesitant to run and that clearly impacted how Heupel called his offense. Unfortunately, Hooker’s gutty performance will go largely unnoticed by anyone outside of Knoxville.
Tennessee was also down Cade Mays for this one, sticking former walk-on Dayne Davis on standout pass rusher Tim Anderson.
The Volunteers had every reason to roll over and get to the bye week after wha happened against Ole Miss, but they didn’t. As we’ve seen time and time again, they fight. They fight hard. They just didn’t have enough ammo in the clip to finish the job.
I’m not big on moral victories — who is? We’ve been through plenty of those at Tennessee by now. This game certainly falls into that category again.
People waking up this morning to see the score that didn’t watch won’t know what happened here. Maybe they were tuned into the Braves game, maybe they were at a wedding. The score doesn’t reflect the effort that we saw, and that’s a shame.
Some of the reaction has been, ‘you lost by 28, same old, same old.’
It wasn’t though. Both sides of the ball came up huge in big moments and the Volunteers had a shot in the fourth quarter. What else can you ask — all things considered? Tennessee saw 30 players enter the transfer portal this year, several of which were starters. They’ve been missing key starters all year due to injury, and were down Cade Mays, Elijah Simmons, Warren Burrell and eventually Theo Jackson too. Injuries happen to everyone, but they mean a little more for a paper-thin Tennessee roster.
That may sound like me making excuses. Guess what? It is. This staff can make those excuses though (they didn’t). That goes away down the road in years three and four, etc.
Tennessee’s shortcomings are going to show up against a team like Alabama. Someone tweeted last night that this roster is held together by bubblegum and electrical tape — that couldn’t be anymore true. The defense eventually wore down as Alabama ran 92 plays to Tennessee’s 54. Tennessee didn’t convert enough third downs (2-12) and Alabama converted too many (15-20).
However, once again, Heupel and his staff came out of this one looking pretty good. He continues to sell his vision and show us glimpses of the future. His inherited players continue to buy in, too.
Tennessee has a really timely bye week here to get healthy, ahead of a massive game at Kentucky. Heupel really has a chance to finish this year off strong and roll that momentum right on to the recruiting trail, which is the next vital step that this program has to take.
The on-field product has already taken shape, Tennessee just needs the depth and a little more talent to win a game like last night’s.