KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP)—Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer turned to his defense in the end to preserve a victory over Alabama in a rivalry that has turned nasty off the field.
The 11th-ranked Volunteers held on for a 17-13 victory with key stops and an interception in the final seconds Saturday night.
“It’s a monkey off his back,” Tennessee linebacker Kevin Burnett said about his embattled coach. “It was a motivating factor for all of us.”
The Crimson Tide (5-3, 2-3 Southeastern Conference) was trailing by a touchdown when Brian Bostick’s 47-yard field goal with 6:26 left pulled Alabama within four.
Tennessee (6-1, 4-1) chose to run the ball three straight times as the orange-clad fans in Neyland Stadium booed and then had to punt. The Vols’ defense, which had trouble at times stopping Alabama’s vaunted running attack, allowed the Tide to get to midfield. But Omar Gaither dropped Alabama’s Kenneth Darby for a loss of 3 to make it fourth-and-6.
Alabama went for it and got a break when Parys Haralson was called for roughing the passer for shoving Spencer Pennington in the face. That moved the ball to the Tennessee 37, but the Vols got another tackle for a loss and Corey Campbell secured the win with an interception at the 15 with 46 seconds remaining.
The Vols immediately started celebrating, tossing a cooler of water on Fulmer, who has beaten Alabama nine of the last 10 tries and is not a popular figure among Tide fans.
The long-running border rivalry has taken on a new meaning since Alabama was sanctioned by the NCAA for recruiting violations. Attorneys outside the university who represent two former Tide assistants claim Fulmer was part of a conspiracy to tear down the Alabama football program.
“All that stuff is irrelevant to what happened between the lines tonight,” Fulmer said. “It was two great programs competing against each other.”
Alabama showed off the SEC’s best rushing offense and why it has the third-best total defense in the nation.
Darby ran 25 times for 99 yards and the Vols were held to just 195 total yards, the third straight team Alabama has held below 200 yards.
“Today answered a lot of questions that we’re doing a pretty good job on defense,” Alabama coach Mike Shula said. “Tennessee was a lot of the reason we didn’t play as well.”
Tennessee freshman Erik Ainge was intercepted twice. He was frustrated much of the game, finishing 10-of-22 for 132 yards.
Ainge didn’t complete a pass until 12:54 left before halftime when Tony Brown caught two passes in a row to break the drought.
Tennessee netted 1 yard of total offense in the first quarter.
The Tide just came up short.
“I really can’t explain the feeling right now,” Alabama linebacker DeMeco Ryans said. “It feels like someone just ripped your heart out. It is a bad feeling.”
The Vols led 17-10 when Ainge made a costly error at the end of the third quarter. The Vols had driven 78 yards to the Alabama 4 when Ainge opted to throw it on third-and-1, and Alabama’s Cornelius Wortham batted the ball at the goal line and caught it for the Tide’s second interception.
Alabama couldn’t move the ball past its 35 and had to give it back to Tennessee. But the Vols gave it right back.
The Tide looked on its way to tying the game on its ensuing drive but Tennessee’s Jesse Mahelona sacked Pennington for a loss of 15 yards. Alabama settled for the field goal.
Neither team seemed to be able to maintain momentum.
The Vols took advantage of good field position after Derrick Tinsley’s 45-yard punt return to the Alabama 29. Ainge found Jayson Swain darting into the end zone for a 19-yard touchdown pass and a 14-10 lead in the second quarter, but the Vols couldn’t pull away.
Swain, of Huntsville, Ala., had a career high five catches for 80 yards.
The Tennessee defense tried to set the tone in the beginning with Haralson’s 18-yard fumble return for a touchdown on the Tide’s second play of the game.