So close, yet so far.
It looked like Tennessee running back John Kelly scored the Volunteers’ first offensive touchdown in nearly a month during the fourth quarter of Alabama’s 45-7 victory, but he didn’t. After further review, the refs deemed Kelly down at the 1-yard line.
Even then, Tennessee couldn’t finish its drive the way it wanted. There was a false start called on the Vols, Kelly was stopped at the line of scrimmage and then quarterback Jarrett Guarantano threw an interception to Alabama linebacker Mack Wilson. That was the closest the Volunteers’ offense got to the end zone Saturday in Bryant-Denny Stadium.
“On the fourth-down play, we did a great job of matching the pattern and got some pressure on the quarterback,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “But it was exciting to see our players not wanting to let them score. Fans were into it. It was great.
“I think that probably speaks a lot toward what this game means and what this rivalry is because there was a lot of pride going on out there, in the stands and on the field.”
On that final play, linebackers Rashaan Evans and Anfernee Jennings were in the backfield.
The thing about Kelly, before Saturday he not only led Tennessee with 552 rushing yards but also in receptions with 24. The junior was one of only two Power Five running backs to lead his team in both areas. He was also leading the SEC in all-purpose yards with an average of 133.7 per game, which is bound to take a dip now.
Kelly compiled 68 total yards against Alabama, breaking down into 63 rushing and 5 receiving. It’s his lowest mark of the season.
There were glimpses of Kelly’s potential. He rushed for 18 yards and a first down to open up a Tennessee drive. He then caught a pass for another 8 yards. But then the rest of the offense fell apart and halftime came before anything noteworthy.
Well, apart from the world-rocking hit Guarantano endured from Evans.
“To be honest with you, I didn’t even realize it was that big of a hit,” Evans said. “When the helmet flew off, I saw it was rolling on the ground and I was like yeah, that might have been a big hit”
The other standout moment for Kelly, and really the Vols’ run game, came in the third quarter. It was another draw play where Kelly was able to take off for 15 yards.
As a whole, Tennessee had 28 rushing yards at halftime. It added another 36 yards in the second half for a not-so-grand total of 64 yards on the ground. Prior to Saturday, Tennessee had run for at least 120 yards in all but one game this season.
“I was (surprised) a little bit,” Evans said. “I feel like that was probably one of the main things they wanted to do, kind of show the rest of the nation they could run the ball.”
Alabama’s defensive mission was accomplished. Tennessee’s sole touchdown was thanks to a 97-yard interception return in the third quarter.
But that late goal-line stand was enough excitement all alone.
“After that,” Evans said, “it was ballgame.”