No. 8 Alabama’s penchant for takeaways concerns Tennessee
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee’s season-long knack for protecting the football is about to face its biggest test.
No. 8 Alabama (6-1, 3-1 SEC) leads the Southeastern Conference with 16 takeaways. The Crimson Tide scored on three interception returns last week in a 41-23 victory at No. 15 Texas A&M, which was ranked ninth at the time.
”They are very disruptive,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said.
Tennessee (3-3, 1-2) must avoid getting disrupted by Alabama’s opportunistic defense Saturday to have any chance of ending the Tide’s recent domination of this annual series. Alabama has beaten Tennessee eight straight times by an average margin of 23.5 points.
”I can’t stress enough how athletic they are in the linebacker spots and the secondary, how well they run and get people to the ball,” Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike DeBord said. ”When you get people to the ball, things can happen for the defense. That’s what we’re working against.”
Tennessee’s offense has done a good job of avoiding mistakes so far.
The Volunteers have committed just five turnovers, which matches the seventh-lowest total of any Football Bowl Subdivision program. Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs has thrown only two interceptions.
”It’s all from habits and your preparation,” Dobbs said. ”If you know the scheme and what the defense is trying to do and you understand your scheme on offense and where your players are and you don’t try to force the ball in there and you just take what the defense gives you, you’re able to take care of the football.”
Then again, Texas A&M’s Kyle Allen also had thrown only two interceptions all season before Alabama picked off three of his passes. The Tide also recorded a fourth interception off Texas A&M’s Kyler Murray.
Minkah Fitzpatrick scored on two interception returns against Texas A&M, while Eddie Jackson had two interceptions and one touchdown. Jackson, a former cornerback, moved to safety this season and leads the SEC with five interceptions.
Alabama’s defense has gotten big contributions from newcomers.
Fitzpatrick, a freshman, has six pass breakups and two sacks this season. Ronnie Harrison, another freshman defensive back, has two interceptions this season. Harrison recorded a sack and broke up a pass against Texas A&M.
”I don’t even view them as freshmen anymore,” Alabama defensive end Jonathan Allen said. ”I’m proud of them. They played a (heck) of a game. We expect that from them. They make plays like that in practice all the time, so I’m not surprised they did what they did.”
Alabama’s big-play potential on defense goes beyond its ability to force turnovers. Alabama also leads the SEC with 22 total sacks – Texas A&M actually averages more sacks per game – and ranks second in the conference in scoring defense.
”They’ve been able to impact the quarterback with applying pressure,” Jones said. ”I think it starts up front. They’re more athletic than what they’ve been in the past at linebacker. They do a great job of being able to break and drive on the ball. I think moving Jackson to safety has really helped them from an athleticism standpoint, and they play with a lot of confidence.”
Although Alabama’s performance against Texas A&M offers cause for concern, Dobbs’ experience should give him reason for confidence. Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland called Dobbs a ”great player” who ”gave us fits and trouble” last season.
Dobbs, who made his collegiate debut at Alabama in 2013, threw for 192 yards and ran for 75 yards against the Tide in a relief role last year. Dobbs’ performance in that 34-20 loss set the tone for his late-season emergence.
”I don’t think there’s any question about the fact that the guy is really playing well,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. ”I think he’s had a great year so far.”
NOTES: Tennessee running back Jalen Hurd didn’t participate in Tuesday’s practice. DeBord said Hurd had the flu and is expected to practice Wednesday. … Tennessee is seeking to snap a 23-game losing streak against top-10 teams. Tennessee hasn’t beaten a top-10 foe since a 51-33 victory over No. 10 Georgia in 2006.
AP Sports Writer John Zenor in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, contributed to this report.
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