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Nichols: Vols Left Gasping For Air Against Alabama, But Refusal to Quit Shows Plenty of Pulse

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Alontae Taylor sat alone on Tennessee's bench Saturday night. 

With eyeblack smeared across his face and his uniform stained with grass, Taylor’s expression was solemn as he stared toward the field -- toward what could have been. 

Entering the fourth quarter, Taylor and the Vols (4-4, 2-3 SEC) trailed 24-17, as Josh Heupel's team overcame a litany of penalties and depth issues to put their crimson foe on the ropes. 

By the time Taylor sulked in solitude, though, the scoreboard result looked all too familiar: 52-24 in favor of No. 4 Alabama (7-1, 4-1 SEC). 

Equally familiar was the acrid stench of cigar smoke, which, by game's end, clogged the lower bowl of Bryant-Denny Stadium. 

"Smoke 'em if you got 'em," they say for those who claim victory on “The Third (although technically Fourth) Saturday in October.”

And, through the haze, that's exactly what Alabama fans did, cracking lighters with a clink before breathing in the fresh scent of another win over Tennessee — Nick Saban’s 15th straight since he was hired in 2007. 

As previously mentioned, the more recent results for this game are far too predictable for Vol fans, most of whom had flooded into the tunnels long before "Rammer Jammer!" rang throughout Bryant-Denny Stadium. 

Another painful refrain came later, offered by wide receiver Cedric Tillman after the loss: "There was no doubt in our mind that we had them in the fourth quarter. Lack of execution is what happened. There's no more moral victories. Little details have stopped us from winning a couple more games this year."

Tillman is right -- the Vols have had their chances, and not just on Saturday.

Even against a Pitt team that beat Clemson by 10, even against an Ole Miss offense that thrashed LSU on Eli Manning's jersey retirement day, and even against an Alabama team that will likely still wind up in the College Football Playoff: Tennessee gave itself a shot. 

Each time, though, that shot has ended up directly in UT's own foot -- especially in Tuscaloosa. 

12 penalties, most of them self-inflicted, for 98 yards tell the main story. 

It’s worth noting that most of those occurred in a first half that ended with the Vols trailing by a touchdown — even after accruing several needless pre-snap mistakes. 

Two of Tennessee’s second-half penalties were especially crucial, though, as they forced UT’s offense to settle for a field goal after a De’Shawn Rucker punt block appeared to put the Vols in prime position for a game-tying touchdown.

Another trio of keys to Tennessee’s loss: third-down conversions, running attack — or lack thereof — and a tired defense late in the fourth quarter.

Alabama went 15-for-20 on third downs, with Bryce Young converting three straight on the first scoring drive of the night, while the Vols were a miserable 2-of-13 in the same facet. Tennessee also ran for a meager 64 yards on 26 attempts, as Alabama linebacker Henry To’oto’o wrapped his former teammates with tackles before doing the same with hugs.

And most of that running game? Well, it came behind an offensive line decimated by injuries, even leading into Saturday’s matchup.

Moreover, Tennessee's defense faced a backfield duo that may well be the nation's best. Young proved his Heisman candidacy by eluding white jerseys for 42 yards -- plenty more if he were charted running from side to side -- on 10 carries. He added 31 completions on 43 attempts, rifling passes 371 yards through the crisp fall air for two touchdowns. Meanwhile, Brian Robinson proved pivotal, sprinting 107 yards on 26 carries for two scores, one of which drew a carnal roar from the Tide faithful. 

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En route to that success, the Tide ran 79 plays to UT’s 36 to keep Tennessee gassed near the end of the fourth quarter.

“In the fourth quarter, just started to wear out a little bit,” Heupel surmised.

Still, his Vols didn’t flinch or make excuses.

Instead, there came Tennessee, responding through adversity with a 70-yard touchdown strike from Hooker to Tillman to make the score 31-24 after Young recovered his own fumble in the end zone for a two-touchdown lead. 

Side note: Young’s touchdown was rather controversial, as Heupel vehemently disagreed with the call. You can see his reactions — each of which is fantastic in its own way — below: 

Heupel’s responses aside, Hooker was a primary example of Tennessee's fight on Saturday. He started and finished the game after exiting the Ole Miss loss with an injury that left him questionable earlier this week. 

"He's a tough guy," Tillman said of Hooker, who went 19-of-28 with 282 yards, three passing touchdowns — one of which gave the Vols their first lead over Alabama in Tuscaloosa since 2015 — and an interception that iced the win for the Tide. 

"He gave his all for Tennessee,” continued Tillman. “I had no doubt he'd be out there." 

Countless times this season, I've noticed fans saying something along the lines of, "There's something different about this team." And those fans are right. 

Even with boneheaded (albeit fixable) penalties, even with depth issues that would have any coach grasping at straws, and even against a team that started Saturday’s game as a 25-point favorite and ended it winning by 28 -- these Vols didn't quit. 

That’s been a common theme and a focal point of Heupel’s culture shift.

“Don’t question the way they show up and compete every Saturday,” Heupel said. “Love that about this group. Love going and competing with them, man. (Saturday) was a lot of fun for three quarters with these guys. We just have to grow up and be smarter. Our margins are smaller and tighter than you want. They know that. We know that. We have to fight to be on the right side of that.”

Aside from growing up and shoring up, though, the Vols could also use some resting up.

Next Saturday's bye week couldn't come sooner for a Tennessee team still looking for bowl eligibility, as Alabama's smoke left the Vols gasping for air. 

But after some rest, expect this team to bounce back. Because even if they don’t run the table, these guys are still looking to turn the tables. 

"(Our goal) going forward is to keep our foot on everyone's neck," defensive lineman Matt Butler said. 

If the Vols can do that, they'll force the strength out of Kentucky.

Even on the tail of another loss to Alabama, that would quite a breath of fresh air for a team that has been brought back to life faster than anyone — even Saban — could have expected.

Cover photo via Jake Nichols