TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP)—With a game-opening onside kick to get things rolling and a John Parker Wilson-to-DJ Hall connection that never stopped, Alabama picked a fine time for its best game of the season.
The Crimson Tide’s 41-17 victory over No. 20 Tennessee Saturday turned into a rollicking debut for coach Nick Saban in the intense border rivalry that had been dominated lately by the Volunteers.
Wilson passed for a career-high 363 yards and three touchdowns, Hall had a school-record 13 catches for 185 yards and the defense pitched a second-half shutout.
“This was the first time this year that we played a complete game,” Saban said.
As a result, Alabama (6-2, 4-1 SEC) got its most lopsided win in the series since a 56-28 victory in 1986 after losing 10 of the last 12 meetings.
Saban set the tone with a successful onside kick that set up the first of four Leigh Tiffin field goals for a team missing two suspended starters, offensive linemen Antoine Caldwell and Marlon Davis, and No. 2 rusher Glen Coffee.
Even without two of his blockers, Wilson completed a school record-tying 32 passes in 46 attempts, including touchdowns to Hall of 16 and 2 yards. He also ran six times for 28 yards.
“It was one of the best games he’s ever had,” said Hall, who had eight catches in the first 19 minutes. “He was just terrific all around.”
The rest of the team wasn’t bad either. Terry Grant carried 26 times for 104 yards and had six catches for 31 yards and a TD.
“Wilson played outstanding and they threw a short passing game and run game to keep us off the field, and we couldn’t get them stopped,” Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said.
Defensively, Alabama mostly denied big plays to Erik Ainge, Lucas Taylor and the league’s top passing team. Ainge was 22-of-35 for 243 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Taylor, the SEC’s leading receiver, managed just two catches for 15 yards for Tennessee (4-3, 2-2) and remained hobbled by a nagging toe injury.
Freshman cornerback Kareem Jackson had two interceptions, including one to halt Tennessee’s most promising scoring drive of the second half and another against backup Jonathan Crompton in the final minutes.
Arian Foster ran for 91 yards on just 13 carries and gained another 74 on four catches. Tennessee receiver Josh Briscoe left the game with a concussion in the first half after three catches.
Tiffin made 4 of 5 field goals, including a 45-yarder with 4:55 left that bounced off the right upright but was still good, another break in a day when everything seemed to go right for the Tide.
Alabama outgained the Vols 510-362 and held the ball for nearly 38 minutes. The 510 yards was the most for the Tide in a Southeastern Conference game since gaining 552 against Arkansas in 2002.
Tennessee also committed a season-high 11 penalties for 81 yards and helped set up one Tide touchdown in the first half with an offsides on fourth-and-inches and a roughing the passer on a third-down play.
“We’ve been one of the least penalized teams in the SEC, and we helped them a lot,” Fulmer said.
The teams ended a wild first half with two scores in the final 12 seconds, set up by a pair of defensive blunders.
First, Hall caught a 2-yard touchdown pass from Wilson to cap a 16-play drive that consumed more than seven minutes, a play after a pass interference call set up first down.
Tennessee took over at its own 45 with 9 seconds showing. A completion to Chris Brown and a late hit penalty set up Daniel Lincoln’s 45-yard field goal on the last play to cut Alabama’s lead to 24-17.
This wasn’t the first time Saban has started a big game with the onside kick.
“We played Auburn at LSU once and I started the game out that way and the same thing happened,” said Saban, a former LSU coach. “I think it was a tremendous momentum-getter for us.”
Ainge and the Vols answered with two consecutive touchdowns for their only lead, capped by Luke Stocker’s 3-yard catch on the first play of the second quarter.
The Wilson-to-Hall connection burned Tennessee again. Wilson found his top receiver for a 16-yard score on third-and-goal, Hall’s eighth catch.
“The defense takes this loss on our shoulders,” Vols linebacker Jerod Mayo said.
Ainge said the offense wasn’t so hot in the second half either.
“It was one little stupid thing after another in the second half that kept us from completing drives,” he said.
Alabama announced the suspensions for Caldwell, Davis and Coffee and two reserve defensive backs before the game for violating school policy on receiving textbooks.
“I wasn’t informed about this until (Friday) night,” Saban said. “Obviously some players did not use good judgment in what they did. I don’t know all the circumstances around it.”