Alabama breaks halftime tie, goes on to pound Tennessee
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Alabama fans could finally move on from the big rival to the really big game.
Most of the 101,821 stuck around until the end of Saturday night's 37-6 rout of Tennessee, happily starting up the "LSU" chants with a couple of minutes left and roaring when the announcer mentioned the next game in two weeks.
Maybe the No. 2 Crimson Tide (8-0, 5-0 Southeastern Conference) had LSU on their minds a little earlier than that.
AJ McCarron passed for 284 yards and a touchdown and ran for another score and led the Tide to a 31-0 second-half surge in a game that was tied at halftime.
"It was a little lackluster in the first half, which was a little concerning," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "There was a concern going into the game, and something we tried to fight all week in terms of guys being focused on what's happening right now and not being concerned about the future.
"And challenging them to play and have respect for the team that they're playing."
The Volunteers (3-4, 0-4) earned that respect by playing the title contender even in the first half.
Then the Tide scored on its first five possessions after halftime to set up a two-week bonanza of hype ahead of Alabama's showdown with No. 1 LSU, which routed Auburn 45-19 in a game that ended shortly before this one kicked off.
"We weren't aware of the score," insisted Tide guard Alfred McCullough. "It had no affect at all."
Now, both SEC powers head into an open date.
As for head-to-head comparisons, the game didn't settle much. LSU beat the Vols last week 38-7 for the same margin.
Saban went on to request everyone to "chill out" with the LSU buildup. That's probably wishful thinking.
Alabama had either first downs or touchdowns on its first 10 plays of the second half to bust open a 6-6 game and let the pre-LSU hype start anew.
The Tide outgained the Vols 280-41 in the second half and the nation's No. 1 defense didn't allow a first down.
"We had a ton of ball left and we lost our spunk," Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said. "That was disappointing to see. We did what we said we weren't going to do and that's get affected if something bad happens in the game, and we lost our fight.
"When you lose your fight against a great football team, what happened in the second half is what is going to happen."
Trent Richardson scored two touchdowns in the second half but finished with 77 yards, leaving him tied with Shaun Alexander for the school mark of six straight 100-yard rushing games.
This one was more about the Tide righting itself from early struggles and overpowering an opponent than boosting Richardson's Heisman credentials.
The offense that sputtered along in the first half exploded for 21 points in the third quarter. The defense that let Tennessee sustain a couple of drives of double-digit plays for field goals before the half put the clamps on emphatically.
The end result was a ninth straight win by at least 16 points and a fifth straight defeat of the Volunteers.
McCarron was 17-of-26 passing though a string of 152 passes without an interception -- third longest in school history -- ended on his second attempt.
It also halted Alabama's string of 50 possessions with no turnovers. Plus, the Tide failed to score on either of its first two possessions for the first time this season.
Those were just aesthetic matters given the final score.
Marquis Maze had five catches for 106 yards, including a 69-yarder.
Matt Simms completed 8 of 17 passes for 58 yards and an interception for Tennessee a week after facing LSU's defense. Tauren Poole managed 67 yards on 19 rushes.
"It's unfortunate the way the second half unfolded," Simms said. "It's just something we have to continue to learn from. We have to remember that the game's not over after halftime."
Whatever Saban told McCarron and the Tide at halftime, it clearly worked.
"He jumped our butts about it," wide receiver Darius Hanks said. "He said we had to come out and play better. I saw something different in all of us, the look in our eyes."
McCarron completed his first four passes of the second half for 73 yards, then covered the final 2 yards himself for the game's first touchdown.
Dooley then summoned one of his five fourth-down gambles, this one in Tennessee territory. Simms was stuffed inches shy on a sneak.
McCarron struck instantly, hitting Kenny Bell in the end zone for a 39-yard touchdown. There was little doubt after that.
Richardson got his 16th rushing touchdown by shrugging off a couple of attempted arm tackles for a 12-yard score. He added a 1-yarder with 9:27 left before heading to the bench.
The Vols cashed in on fourth-down gambles on each of their first-half field goal drives, including a fake punt that set up Michael Palardy's 52-yarder to tie it at 6-all. It was Tennessee's longest field goal since Jeff Hall's 53-yarder against Oklahoma State in 1995 and the first second quarter points the Tide had allowed all season.
It was the last big play for the Vols, offensively or defensively. Then, McCarron and the Tide defense took over.
"In the first half, they were trying to stop the run early," Richardson said, "and we just had to come back in the second half and punch them in the mouth."
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