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Vols looking forward to challenge at #4 Alabama

UT travels to Tuscaloosa Saturday night for the 104th meeting with the Crimson Tide
(WVLT)
Published: Oct. 19, 2021 at 4:51 PM EDT
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - The Tennessee football team took Haslam Field Tuesday morning in preparation for its next interdivisional SEC challenge at No. 4 Alabama. UT travels to Tuscaloosa Saturday night for the 104th meeting between the Volunteers and the Crimson Tide, set for a 7 p.m. kickoff on ESPN. 

Assistant coaches Jerry Mack (running backs), Willie Martinez (secondary) and select UT players met with members of the media after Tuesday’s practice to preview the upcoming matchup. “They’re just consistent, efficient,” Martinez said. “Obviously, they’ve been doing that for a long time. The consistency and being able to sustain it is a credit to them. Obviously, we’re looking forward to the challenge. It’s a very talented football team.” 

Tennessee’s defense has put up impressive numbers through the first seven weeks of the season and will look to continue those trends against the Tide. The Vols have racked up 62.0 tackles for loss, a tally that leads all Power Five teams and ranks second in the FBS. UT has forced 10 turnovers in the last five weeks and picked off eight interceptions, which ranks third in the SEC and 13th in the FBS. The Volunteer defensive unit will face another strong test Saturday night against the league’s top scoring offense, as Alabama leads the SEC at 45.0 points per game.

Crimson Tide freshman Bryce Young tops the SEC with 24 passing touchdowns and is the highest rated quarterback in the league (180.0), narrowly edging UT senior signal caller Hendon Hooker (179.8). Martinez praised his secondary’s effort and energy through the first four weeks of SEC play and has called upon his group to focus on playing smarter as UT gears up for the impending stretch run. “For the most part, I think these guys have been playing really hard,” Martinez said. “They have been playing physical. The energy’s been there. They’ve continued to progress in the knowledge of our scheme and preparing. I think they’ve done a really great job with that. I think the thing we could always do better is play smarter. We’ve got to be able to sustain it throughout the whole game—making good decisions and solving problems as we go.” 

Offensively, the Vols will look to keep the ground game operating at a high clip against Alabama’s stout rushing defense. The Big Orange enters the weekend putting up 249.1 rushing yards per game (third in the SEC), while the Tide surrenders just 90.3 rush yards per contest (second in the SEC). Five Tennessee running backs have seen action throughout the 2021 campaign, with Tiyon Evans (486) and Jabari Small (324) pacing the group in rushing yardage this season. When the duo has had to miss time due to injury, the Vols have seen significant contributions from freshmen Len’Neth Whitehead and Jaylen Wright as well as senior walk-on Marcus Pierce Jr. “I think the room has been doing a really good job of next man up mentality,” Mack said of his RB corps. “You saw Len’Neth Whitehead get his opportunities. You’ve seen Jaylen Wright get some opportunities in the past. Everybody just has to be ready to play. You never know when an opportunity is going to present itself. So, we try to prepare the room, all of those guys … We were a little short with one man down last week. So, we had more stress on the room and they handled it well, to be honest with you. If Jabari (Small) had not been able to finish that game, I had no doubt that some of those other guys would’ve been able to carry the load.”

Despite the tough loss on Saturday night inside a packed Neyland Stadium, Tennessee is back to work with a huge opportunity on the horizon against No. 4 Alabama this weekend. UT is in the midst of a four-game stretch against ranked opponents and will attempt to snap a 14-game skid to the Crimson Tide.

”It’s a huge opponent,” head coach Josh Heupel said on Monday. “They’re a really good football team and it’s a rivalry game—one that our guys and staff will be extremely excited about being ready for and going down to Tuscaloosa and competing against a really good football team.”

One thing is for certain, this year’s version of the Vols is going to battle for all 60 minutes and leave everything out on the field. ”I thought our guys competed extremely hard and played every second on the clock. They played it right up until the end,” Heupel said when talking about last Saturday’s game against Ole Miss. “There were some things that we obviously can do better in all three phases. We had to play smarter to finish on the right side of that but didn’t do that. Those are things that for the most part we control.”

If the Big Orange wish to spring the upset on Saturday, they’ll need another solid performance from their consistently improving defense, who held the Rebels’ high-scoring attack to just seven points in the second half on Saturday night.” Fourth quarter, they did a fantastic job, and it speaks to their effort, strain and competitive spirit,” Heupel said about his defense. “It speaks to their understanding of what we’re doing. I think defensively, we continue to get better every single week.”

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