Tennessee gains confidence before facing Alabama
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – A win over the Southeastern Conference’s worst team hardly seems like a confidence booster.
Tennessee’s 34-3 victory over Mississippi State was just what the Volunteers’ offense needed, though, as it prepares for their biggest game of the season against No. 2 Alabama.
“Winning solves a lot of problems and a lot of issues,” coach Phillip Fulmer said Tuesday. “It’s just been a real battle because we’ve been our own worst enemy, and to play a complete game like that … it gives you some momentum. It gives you a good feeling about yourselves.”
The Vols offense has had little to celebrate this season, even stumbling through wins against mediocre non-conference opponents.
But after weeks of suffering drive-killing penalties and turnovers, the Tennessee offense had neither against the Bulldogs.
Offensive coordinator Dave Clawson said he saw a bit of a change in the attitudes of his players in the middle of the game.
In the second and third quarters, the Vols (3-4, 1-3 SEC) put together three long drives that resulted in two field goals and a touchdown. After two interceptions returned for touchdowns gave them a 27-3 lead, the offense seemed to relax.
A week after the team netted only 1 yard rushing at Georgia, third-string tailback Lennon Creer ran the ball every down of a 12-play, 51-yard drive late in the fourth quarter and picked up another touchdown on a 1-yard run.
“To finish the game the way we did, with that type of drive — that we’re gonna run the ball, the whole stadium knew we’re gonna run the ball, Mississippi State knew we’re gonna run the ball — and still be able to run it and score? After the way we played against Georgia, I thought we had to do that,” Clawson said.
Tennessee needed every bit of practice running the ball and every bit of confidence that resulted from it to prepare for Alabama (7-0, 4-0). The Crimson Tide ranks fourth in the nation in rushing defense.
Alabama lost its marquis defensive lineman, 6-foot-5, 365-pound nose guard Terrence Cody, to a knee injury against Mississippi. And while coach Nick Saban thinks Josh Chapman will have no trouble filling in for him for a couple of weeks, he knows Cody’s presence will still be missed.
“I don’t think you replace guys like Cody,” Saban said. “He is a very good player, and he has played well for us. I think the other players like him and have a lot of confidence in him. I think this is a time for players to support the players that are going to play.”
Clawson certainly isn’t gaining any optimism from Cody’s absence.
“He’s a big player, but the guy backing him up may be just as good if not better. Obviously when you’re that size, there’s certain things you do but the backup is really active,” he said.
Tennessee is hoping its current momentum gives it a boost early against the Tide. The Vols have scored in the first quarter of only one game this season — a 35-3 win over UAB in September.
Alabama has dominated opponents during first-half play before dropping off in the second half.
“It’s been us being complacent and looking at the scoreboard,” Crimson Tide offensive tackle Andre Smith said. “We get complacent and say, ‘We are up by this many points, so the defense is going to hold them,’ and sit back and not go as hard. It starts in practice for us.
“We just have to go hard the entire time.”