KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – For the first 30 minutes in a sold-out Neyland Stadium on Saturday night, Tennessee played No. 1 Alabama as well as any team has all season.
But the Crimson Tide proved too much in the second half, scoring 21 unanswered points to pull away for a 44-13 victory over the Vols.
Alabama (7-0, 4-0 SEC) saw a 30-yard touchdown wiped off the board on its opening possession of the second half, and the drive ended three plays later with a missed field goal.
That swing gave Tennessee an early opening in the second half, but it couldn’t find a way to put pressure on the defending BCS champions early.
After going three and out on their next possession, the Vols stopped Alabama and got the ball back the Alabama 42. But that drive stopped short on fourth down when the Tide stuffed A.J. Johnson on fourth-and-1.
Alabama took off on a six-play drive, capped by a 42-yard touchdown pass to Amari Cooper that gave Alabama a 30-10 lead
But Tennessee (3-4, 0-4 SEC) stormed back down the field on a 44-yard catch-and-run to Justin Hunter.
Two plays later, though, on second-and-13 from the Alabama 21, safety Robert Lester stepped in front Alton Howard in the end zone and intercepted Bray’s pass.
From there, Alabama was off to the races.
Quarterback A.J. McCarron, in the midst of a career night passing, connected with a wide open Kenny Bell on a 39-yard play-action pass to take a 37-10 lead. Then T.J. Yeldon broke free for 43 yards to give the Tide a 44-10 lead with 9:07 left.
Tennessee’s only second-half points came late in the fourth quarter, when an Alabama fumble helped set up a 21-yard field goal by Michael Palardy, his second of the game.
Tennessee’s first half was more productive against Alabama, which entered the game with the nation’s top-ranked defense in every major statistical category.
Cyrus Jones’ 32-yard punt return helped lead to Alabama’s first score of the game. Six plays later, McCarron hit Cooper for a 23-yard touchdown.
The Vols struck back with a lengthy drive that stalled in the red zone. After moving to the Tide’s 9-yard line, a fumbled pitch to Cordarrelle Patterson on second down and an incomplete pass forced a 32-yard field goal by Palardy to make the score 7-3.
That field goal marked the first time an opponent has scored in the first quarter against Alabama all season.
After a missed Alabama field goal, the Vols’ next drive ended with an interception at the their 32-yard line. Four Yeldon runs later, the Tide had a 13-3 lead with 11:23 remaining in the first half.
Following a three-and-out by Tennessee, McCarron found Cooper for a 54-yard gain to the UT 54. Two plays later McCarron again connected with Williams in the end zone for a 20-3 lead.
Patterson, who has been electric on kickoff returns this season, took the ensuing kick 45 yards to the Bama 48 and two plays later, Bray hit Mychal Rivera for 43 yards all the way to Alabama 5.
Following an Alabama penalty, A.J. Johnson scored his fourth touchdown of the season on a 2-yard run to make the score 20-10. Alabama added a 34-yard field goal with 1:24 remaining before the half.
Tennessee’s 13-point deficit at halftime marked Alabama’s slimmest margin after two quarters this season.
It very nearly could have been slimmer.
Hunter, after slipping behind the Alabama secondary, had a pass slip through his hands deep in Alabama territory in the final minute of the first half.
Tennessee travels to South Carolina next week for a noon kickoff (TV: ESPN) before returning home Nov. 3 for a homecoming game against Troy.