KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Alabama coach Nick Saban finally likes what he sees.
After grilling the Crimson Tide for not playing with the toughness and intensity that’s characteristic of his Alabama squads, Saban thinks his players finally lived up to their identity in a 41-10 win at Tennessee on Saturday night.
“We really wanted to try to build on and establish an identity,” Saban said. “We did that in the second half. This is the best we’ve probably played on the road this year.”
Alabama (7-1, 4-1 SEC) certainly did not look like a team that’s played eight straight games. Greg McElroy threw with precision, Trent Richardson and Mark Ingram finally found some open space on the ground and Julio Jones set a single-game school record with 221 yards on a career-high 12 catches.
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It was just the kind of win the Tide, ranked seventh in the latest BCS standings, wanted heading into a bye week and before facing No. 12 LSU at Baton Rouge on Nov. 6.
“We had to build the identity that we could win on the road,” defensive end Marcell Dareus said. “We needed a convincing win. We’re not just an average team. We can pull away from the pack when we put our minds to it.”
Alabama seemed a little sluggish in the first half, but Saban said it was because the Volunteers came out with a solid game plan.
The Vols (2-5, 0-4) took a lesson from South Carolina and Mississippi, who successfully limited the Crimson Tide the past two weeks by blitzing and pressuring McElroy, but the effort wore down a team plagued by a lack of depth.
That’s when Alabama really turned up the intensity.
“Our guys were playing hard in the first half and were playing with a lot of toughness,” Saban said. “(Tennessee) had a good plan and took advantage of some things. We just needed to ramp it up a notch or two to get to their level, and I think we came out and did that in the second half.”
With a 13-10 halftime lead, the Tide wasted no time in the third quarter, grabbing three straight first downs on its opening drive before Mark Ingram pushed the ball 1 yard for the touchdown for a 20-10 lead.
McElroy’s success connecting with Jones opened it up for Alabama on the ground. Richardson and Ingram had just 91 yards rushing at halftime, but added 96 yards on the ground in the third quarter.
Richardson broke a 65-yard run for a touchdown on Alabama’s next drive, and Ingram followed that with another 1-yard touchdown run to make it 34-10 with 3:45 in the third quarter.
Richardson finished with 119 yards rushing, Ingram had 88 and McElroy completed 21 of 32 for 264 yards, mostly to Jones.
One major lapse by Alabama’s defensive coverage in the first half gave Tennessee’s Tauren Poole a gaping hole, allowing him to break a 59-yard touchdown run to give the Vols an early 7-0 lead. Poole finished with 117 yards, becoming the first player to rush for more than 100 yards against Alabama since Mississippi’s BenJarvus Green-Ellis ran for 131 on Oct. 13, 2007.
“We don’t focus on things like that,” safety Robert Lester said. “We just go out and execute.”
The win not only helped the Crimson Tide with its identity. It also extended Alabama’s streak over Tennessee in the Third Saturday in October rivalry.
The Tide now has four straight wins over the Vols for the first time since putting together a seven-game winning streak from 1986 to 1992. It also counted as Alabama’s most lopsided victory in Knoxville, even worse than a 56-28 pummeling in 1986.
“I have a lot of respect for the tradition of this (rivalry), their program, their coaches and their players,” Saban said. “Certainly a game like this both teams are going to be up and ready to play.”