By Michael Southern
Special to The Tuscaloosa News
For an offense that averages 51 points behind a Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback and a stable of receivers ready for the NFL Combine, the names the Alabama Crimson Tide needed to step forward Saturday night seemed more suited for an A-Day depth chart.
Mac Jones, Slade Bolden, Miller Forristall, Brian Robinson and even walk-on punter Ty Perine each responded to second-half challenges against the upset-minded Tennessee Volunteers.
When an ankle injury to Tua Tagovailoa in the waning minutes of the second quarter left the Bryant-Denny Stadium crowd holding its collective breath, Jones and the remaining cast of flip-card warriors had to keep their emotions in check as top-ranked Alabama held off Tennessee 35-13.
“I think our guys grinded it out and competed,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said. “It was a tough game. I know the expectation is we’re going to go out there and score 50.”
Jones, who is more accustomed to entering the final minutes of the second half, replaced the limping Tagovailoa with 6:03 remaining in the second quarter.
Even though the Crimson Tide failed to score again until the third quarter, Jones completed 3 of 6 passes for 42 yards before halftime.
“I feel like Mac can make the plays,” Robinson said. “We all practice the same things. We all prepare well in practice for when something happens. You’ve got to stay ready at all times. We expect Mac to come in and live up to the same standards.
“I just looked him in his eyes and said, ‘We’ve got your back.’ Looking in his face you could tell he wasn’t expecting to play as much as he did today, but after he went in he got more comfortable. I feel like he settled in.”
After a 32-yard field goal by Tennessee place-kicker Brent Cimaglia pulled the Volunteers to within 21-13 midway through the third quarter, the new look Alabama offense had to answer.
Behind the running of Najee Harris and an 18-yard pass from Jones to DeVonta Smith, the Crimson Tide drove to the Tennessee 6-yard line.
On the next play, Bolden lined up in the Wildcat formation, but instead of running he lofted a pass to an open Forristall to give Alabama a 28-13 advantage.
“It was a great experience,” Bolden said. “I’m not going to lie. You pray for times like this. You finally get a chance and everybody executed up front. Miller got open and thankfully I threw a good ball. I know everybody is going to do his job. All I have to do is make the play.”
Harris anchored a rushing attack that transformed from a complimentary piece to an integral weapon in Alabama’s victory over the Volunteers. He rushed for a game-high 105 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries.
Robinson followed with 40 yards on seven carries, which included a 9-yard touchdown run in the first quarter.
“We knew they were probably going to lean on us once Tua went down in the game,” Robinson said. “We knew they were going to feed us the ball more, and we had to be prepared for it.”