Alabama's defensive backs frustrate Vols quarterback, wide receivers
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- For weeks, Alabama was waiting for the Third Saturday in October to come. The annual rivalry against Tennessee not only signaled a return to Neyland Stadium, but also the test the Crimson Tide needed, the test that might put some worries to rest once and for all.
A resounding 44-13 victory in Knoxville answered that. Derek Dooley's high-powered offense barely beat out the drum roar of the domineering UA defense. For every big play the Vols came up with, the Tide had an answer, and then some.
The UA secondary -- the one that lost three of four starters to the NFL from a year ago -- stood up to the challenge. Vols quarterback Tyler Bray, who came into the weekend 16th in the country with 288 passing yards per game, threw for just 184 yards. His two interceptions all but extinguished any chance of hanging with Alabama through four quarters.
"It was their big moment," said UA linebacker Nico Johnson, describing a secondary that's played with a chip the size of Rocky Top on its shoulder all season.
"All they heard was they weren't going to be good enough because we lost Mark Barron, we lost Dre Kirkpatrick and DeQuan Menzie and all them. So, they took it among themselves to be accountable to their job. That's what they're doing. They're showing what they can do and what they're able to do out here on the field. I think each week they've proven it."
Tennessee's Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson, whom Alabama coach Nick Saban called the two best receivers in the league earlier in the week, combined for 95 yards and no touchdowns. When they were able to strike for a big gain, the defense came back with its own.
Two plays after Bray found Hunter for a 44-yard reception to put the Vols inside the red zone, UA safety Robert Lester read the quarterback's eyes and stepped in front of the receiver for a key interception. Tennessee fans booed late in the fourth when Dooley opted for a field goal rather than go for it on fourth down with the game already out of hand.
"We kept telling our guys that they had to have some resiliency and that they were going to make some big plays in the game some way," said UA coach Nick Saban. "They had two wideouts and the quarterback's ability to throw it down the field. I was really pleased with the way our guys hung in there after they made plays."
Lester said the only thing the defense could have done better was eliminate big plays. While Tennessee couldn't get the ball in the end zone, it did show some of the holes in the Tide defense. When Bray pushed the tempo and went no-huddle, UA got on its heels and out of position. When Marlin Lane was patient, he was able to run behind his offensive line with some success. When Patterson and Hunter got their wheels churning, they were able to get behind the defense and get open. A drop here and a misread there was what doomed the Vols.
"I thought we'd score more points," Dooley said after the game, lamenting the poor execution on offense. "I thought we'd execute our pass game a little better, but we didn't. We took five shots to [Hunter] in the first half and 0-5 on it. We took a couple to [Patterson] and nothing.
"That's the way it is."
If Alabama can't be perfect all the time, that's OK with Lester. He said he has a short-term memory. His goal is greatness and that's not measured in a few big gains in an otherwise strong effort.
"We want to prove we're a great defense, a great secondary," he said. "We want to establish that."
A soft-spoken Lester may not come out and say it, but Johnson will. He's proud of the secondary and what they showed against Tennessee.
"Words can't explain how impressed I am with where they came from to where they are now," he said.
With Mississippi State coming up next, followed by a road trip to LSU the week after, the defense will be tested yet again. Johnny Manziel and the high-octane Aggies round out the brutal three-game stretch. Alabama cleared a major hurdle in Knoxville, but that doesn't mean the road will be any less rocky.
Just like the doubters, dealing with a challenge is something Lester and the Alabama defense is used to.
"We have something to prove every week," Lester said. "Every team is out here to beat us."