TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — For one half of a game that could have done so much for Tennessee’s program and season, Joe Milton was the quarterback the Volunteers hoped to have.
Running the ball with speed and purpose. Passing it with zip and touch. Milton wasn’t perfect, but that was never the expectation. He was 16-for-22 for 175 yards at intermission Saturday — nearly twice what he had a week earlier in a win over Texas A&M — for two touchdowns, with no interceptions. He had a game-high 43 rushing yards on eight attempts. The Vols led 20-7. The first consecutive wins for Tennessee over Alabama since 2003 and 2004 were attainable, as was a path to a Nov. 18 showdown with Georgia at Neyland Stadium for the SEC East.
No. 17 Tennessee vs. No. 11 Alabama has started with some early fireworks 🔥
The Vols come up with the incredible reception to take the lead in under three minutes.
— The Athletic CFB (@TheAthleticCFB) October 21, 2023
A couple of hours later, Milton stood in front of reporters in the bowels of Bryant-Denny Stadium and tried to explain how it all went up in smoke — and yes, the Alabama players, coaches and fans seemed to go extra hard on the stogies after a 27-0 domination of the second half delivered a 34-20 win. The best explanation, which is always difficult for a team that just took an emotional beating the way the Vols did, is that Alabama took this game. Nick Saban’s team is flawed but also tough and as talented as anyone.
Also, let’s give credit to Tennessee for being too soft and not nearly smart enough when things start snowballing on the road. In two games in hostile environments this season, the No. 17 Vols (5-2, 2-2 SEC) have played three horrific halves of football, losing to a middling Florida team and letting No. 11 Alabama (7-1, 5-0) do whatever it wanted when it mattered most.
A much better UT team gave up 63 points at South Carolina last season to fall out of the College Football Playoff race. Josh Heupel needs to figure out road momentum control if he’s going to get this program where he wants to get it.
Alabama tops Tennessee with dominant second half
“Second half, we just weren’t good enough, from me, our coaches, to our players,” Heupel said. “Got to be able to play for 60 minutes against a good football team on the road. Extremely disappointed with the outcome. … I told the guys in the locker room, they compete, man, they do. We don’t play smart enough at times, but they compete. I’ll go with these guys anywhere.”
That could still be to a quality bowl game, but trips to Kentucky and Missouri will define that. I’m more confident in the Vols’ focus, energy and ability to compete with Georgia at home than I am about whatever the Vols might do in those two games. They should win both, for certain. But this is an unreliable team without the Neyland Stadium roars behind it, and it’s got an inconsistent quarterback who is clearly getting frustrated with some of what is going on around him.
That was obvious after some plays Saturday. It’s been obvious at various points in the season. It was hammered home when Milton repeatedly brought up guys not doing what they are supposed to do on the field.
“Certain guys (weren’t) doing their jobs, taking turns, I’ll take full responsibility for that, just because I’m the quarterback but also because this is my team,” Milton said. “I lead this team … having guys assignment-sound for the next game is going to be very important.”
He said the Vols “stopped doing our jobs at a high level” in the second half, and when asked if he did his job at a high level, he said: “I mean, no, because we lost.”
Milton (28-for-41, 271 yards) was not high on the list of players who didn’t get it done for the Vols in the second half. But he also seemed powerless to change things after the UT defense came right out and gave up an Alabama touchdown drive in the first 19 seconds of the second half — a 29-yard run and a 46-yard touchdown pass on a coverage gaffe. And after a fair-catch signal mistake pinned the offense deep in its own end on the ensuing possession.
And after Heupel made the coaching mistake of the game, deciding to go for it on fourth-and-1 at his own 47 with a 20-17 lead. A Dylan Sampson run was destroyed short of the line of scrimmage, Tennessee’s second fourth-and-short failure against one of the most talented defensive fronts in the sport. Sneaking the massive Milton either time probably would have had a higher chance of working, but the Vols are as averse to going under center as they are bothered by hostile crowd noise.
Alabama cruised right in for what would stand as the winning touchdown in five plays. It never got better.
“We just let go of the rope,” UT linebacker Elijah Herring said, speculating that the Vols “got comfortable, felt like we won the game already” after the tremendous first half.
Tennessee cornerback Gabe Jeudy-Lally countered that idea, saying he thought the Vols “came out with a lot of energy,” and receiver Squirrel White said: “The energy was great. We said, ‘Let’s go step on their throats.’”
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But they did not respond to things going wrong, repeatedly. This included some calls the Vols didn’t like, on a day that saw them penalized eight times for 55 yards while Alabama was whistled for a single 5-yard penalty. Heupel got a friendly question about the Crimson Tide being allowed to play “Mortal Kombat” without repercussion, and he responded with a dramatic pause in appreciation.
“Next question,” Heupel finally said. “Yeah, was that a long enough silence?”
It was similar to the amount of time it took Alabama to turn 30 minutes of excellent Tennessee football into something you knew wasn’t going to hold up. And that’s a more pressing issue for Heupel to address than sending the SEC the cut-ups of all the calls he didn’t like.
(Top photo of Alabama’s Chris Braswell forcing a fumble by Joe Milton that resulted in a touchdown by Jihaad Campbell in the fourth quarter: Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)