TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — With a kick, a fumble and a catch, No. 5 Alabama ended a decade of frustration in its bitter rivalry with Tennessee.
Those three plays and a relentless defense lifted the Crimson Tide to a 6-3 victory over the 17th-ranked Volunteers on Saturday, keeping its perfect season intact in stirring fashion.
“What a way to win the game,” Crimson Tide coach Mike Shula said. “Our guys hung in there for the whole game. Whenever it looked like things were going against us and nothing was going to go our way, our guys stepped up and made some plays.”
The final one was Jamie Christensen’s 34-yard field goal with 13 seconds left for his second straight game-winner. Two other huge plays late made it possible.
Tennessee (3-3, 2-3 Southeastern Conference) had appeared poised to take the lead when it had the ball first-and-goal at the Alabama 3. Mistakes pushed the ball back to the 15 by third down, and a final one turned the game around.
Cory Anderson caught a swing pass and headed toward the end zone. Alabama’s Roman Harper jarred the ball loose near the goal line and it bounced out of the end zone with 5:08 left, giving the Tide (7-0, 5-0) the ball and stopping Tennessee’s hopes of breaking the tie.
“I wasn’t thinking they were going to score,” said linebacker DeMeco Ryans, who recovered an earlier fumble and intercepted Tennessee’s last-gasp pass. “I knew one of our safeties was going to come in and hit him. I didn’t think they were going to score.”
After Alabama took over, Brodie Croyle hit D.J. Hall for a 43-yard gain down the left sideline on third-and-8 to keep the game-winning drive going, one of the few big plays supplied by either offense.
“When we came to the huddle, Brodie came right at me,” said Hall, who had 10 catches for 139 yards. “He said, ‘Hey, I’m coming right to you so just run.’ That’s what I did. I gave (the defender) a little move and ran by him and Brodie just put it in the right spot.”
After Ken Darby’s 11-yard scamper pushed the ball to the Tennessee 14, Alabama milked the clock down to 18 seconds with the Volunteers out of timeouts for Christensen’s kick.
“I’ve done it a 1,000 times,” said Christensen, who booted a 31-yarder as time expired in the Tide’s 13-10 win over Mississippi last week. “It’s no different, except for what’s at stake.”
Anderson’s fumble was only the last of an array of costly mistakes for the Volunteers. They lost three fumbles, including a second by Gerald Riggs Jr. on their only other trip inside the 10.
“We beat ourselves tonight,” quarterback Rick Clausen said. “That’s it. That’s all it boils down to. You can’t make mistakes and beat a team like Alabama.”
Any chance of a last-second miracle all but ended when two penalties on the kickoff pushed the Volunteers back inside their own 10-yard line.
Neither team scored until the final play of the third quarter, with Christensen’s 33-yard field goal breaking the 0-0 deadlock.