KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Lane Kiffin figured out a winning strategy for his return to Knoxville.
Throw the ball to Amari Cooper early and often.
Cooper caught nine passes, scored two touchdowns and set an Alabama single-game record with 224 yards receiving to help the No. 4 Crimson Tide beat Tennessee 34-20 on Saturday night for its eighth consecutive victory in the series.
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Cooper’s big performance produced a triumphant return for Kiffin, the Alabama offensive coordinator who coached Tennessee in 2009 and angered Volunteers fans by leaving for Southern California after only one season.
"I just try to do the best I can to get everything out of every ball thrown to me," Cooper said.
Cooper broke the receiving yardage record set by Julio Jones, who had 221 yards receiving in a 41-10 victory over Tennessee in 2010. By the end of the first quarter, Cooper already had five catches for 185 yards and two touchdowns.
Tennessee (3-5. 0-4 SEC) rallied from a 27-0 deficit to make it competitive thanks largely to Joshua Dobbs, who provided a spark after entering the game on the Vols’ third series.
Dobbs went 19 of 32 for 192 yards with two touchdown passes and one interception. He also rushed for 75 yards on 19 carries in his first action of the season. Dobbs helped the Vols cut the lead to 27-17 in the third quarter before Alabama’s Derrick Henry stopped Tennessee’s momentum with a 28-yard touchdown run.
"I thnk what we did is we relaxed a little but bit you’ve got to give Tennessee’s guys a whole lot of credit because they surely didn’t flinch," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "They didn’t give up at all. They kept playing hard."
Dobbs was in the game because a shoulder injury prevented usual starter Justin Worley from playing. Nathan Peterman started in place of Worley before Dobbs came on. Tennessee coach Butch Jones said there was no timetable on when Worley might return.
"I thought (Dobbs) was in command," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "I thought Josh showed some very good poise."
The biggest suspense leading into the game was how the sellout crowd of 102,455 would treat Kiffin, who joined Alabama’s staff this year after USC fired him midway through last season.
As fans tailgated before the game, a plane flew overhead with the message "Go Vols Beat Kiffin." One banner hanging from a parking garage featured Tennessee coach Butch Jones’ face along with the message "Lane Kiffin? Never Heard of Her." At a rock on campus where students often paint various messages, the faces of Jones and Kiffin were featured with the word "future" by Jones and a crude remark next to Kiffin. Hours before the opening kickoff, all references to Kiffin on the rock were blacked out.
Alabama (7-1, 4-1) arrived at Neyland Stadium amid heavy security, but about 80 percent of the 1,000 or so fans who gathered to watch Alabama’s players and coaches step off the team bus were Tide supporters. A few of them screamed "Lane" as Kiffin headed into the locker room.
Kiffin’s offense wasted no time making a statement, thanks mainly to Cooper.
On Alabama’s first play from scrimmage, Cooper caught a short pass from Blake Sims, ran to his right and raced 80 yards down the Tide sideline. Kiffin ran down the sidelines along with Cooper as the junior receiver headed toward the end zone.
"He told me afterward he almost beat me to the touchdown," Cooper said.
That play set the tone for the rest of Cooper’s night.
Cooper reached the end zone again on Alabama’s second series with a 41-yard reception down the left sideline. He added a 30-yard catch on Alabama’s third series to set up T.J. Yeldon’s 1-yard touchdown run.
Tennessee didn’t go away thanks to its own surprisingly potent offense.
The Vols entered the night having failed to score a touchdown in their last two SEC games, and they had to face Alabama without three injured starters: Worley, left guard Marcus Jackson and right tackle Coleman Thomas. But the Vols moved the ball effectively behind Dobbs, who had started four games in place of an injured Worley last year but hadn’t played at all this season until Saturday. Jones had indicated earlier this season that he was hoping to redshirt Dobbs.
Tennessee scored 10 points in the final 7:03 of the first half to cut Alabama’s lead to 27-10. Dobbs threw a 9-yard touchdown pass to Josh Malone and got the Vols into range for Aaron Medley’s 27-yard field goal on the final play of the half. After Dobbs capped Tennessee’s first drive of the second half with a 9-yard touchdown pass to Von Pearson, a 27-point deficit was all the way down to 10.