11 November 2008
It can no longer be said that this Alabama team has not been tested. Between Bama's own early mistakes, the spirited play of a fired-up and talented LSU squad, and 92,000 home faithful that rivaled close-range jet airliner decibel levels, the question was thoroughly put to the undefeated Tide, both early and late.
But by the time that question was finally and conclusively answered on a John Parker Wilson sneak in overtime, the only high-decibel part of the stadium was the crimson-clad slice in the corner of one end zone. As they say, he who cheers last, cheers best.
It was sloppy at times, but still a memorable game, as full of passion and hard knocks as life itself. For the first time this season, Alabama ran into a team that could and did bring the Tide's physicality right back at them - but when the cutting was done, it was the team from Tuscaloosa that had clinched its first SEC West title in nearly a decade, and it was Nick Saban stealing off into the night with a Death Valley win in his back pocket.
How did it happen?
Alabama's 138 yards rushing was well below the 205.3 they had averaged coming into the game. John Parker Wilson completed less than 50% of his passes for only the fourth time this season, failed to throw a TD pass for only the fifth time this season, and threw a pick for only the fifth time this season.
But don't be deceived. Jim McElwain called the plays that needed to be called, Wilson, Julio Jones and Glen Coffee made the plays that needed to be made, and overall the Tide moved the ball plenty and scored plenty to win. In fact, but for muffed scoring opportunities, the Tide could have scored a lot more points than they did.
Special kudos to McElwain and Saban for coming out aggressive after Rashad Johnson's pick left a goose egg on the board for LSU's first overtime possession. Seems like the Tide went a different direction in a similar situation in Fayetteville a few years back, and that didn't turn out so well.
I've seen John Parker Wilson throw better - a fair bit better, in fact - but I've never seen his head so into the game. Not that he didn't egregiously lock in to a single receiver time after time when he had literally five seconds or more to look around, but hey, what did you expect?
On more than one occasion, Wilson actually did
perform the miraculous feat of turning his head from side to side while back to pass. And the weave, escape, and dump to Earl Alexander that ended Bama's first possession - sadly, not in a good way - was perhaps the most creative single play of the Hoover Hurler's Tide career.
But what you had to like best was the end of the fourth quarter, when Wilson rose up like a big crimson shadow over the purple and gold crowd and said this game is mine. First was the 32-yard touchdown jaunt that stood to be the signature play of Wilson's career until it was called back for an extraneous ticky-tack penalty.
Denied the first time by the referees, Wilson got another chance when the Tide defense responded with a three-and-out. Given good field position, he calmly steered the Tide's two-minute offense into chip-shot field goal range, completing his only pass along the way for eight yard to Julio Jones. Denied again by the blocked field goal, Wilson winged a 25-yard dagger to LSU's heart on the Tide's first play of overtime, and then twisted it in to the hilt himself with his second-down sneak.
So what if his inaccurate third-down pitchout to Mark Ingram cost the Tide an easy second-quarter first down? So what if, without throwing a single jump ball to Julio Jones the entire season, he threw two in this game to 5'9" Marquis Maze (the second turning into a pick thanks to a brilliant individual effort by LSU's Patrick Peterson). This was still a game to remember for Wilson.
Roy Upchurch had a "crick in his neck" and didn't suit out. Mark Ingram may have been feeling the effect of last week's last-carry knee bruise, and only carried five times for six yards. (He didn't play again after dropping a pitchout on a third-down sweep, but I tend to think that's just a coincidence, because the misfire appeared to me to be mostly Wilson's fault.)
All this gave Glen Coffee the chance to play "workhorse." Which he did, racking up 126 yards and a TD on 26 carries. Coffee was not always bowling them over backwards, but he was usually stretching out for enough yards to keep us from running into many third and long situations. He was also a reliable part of the pass-blocking group that gave Wilson grunches of time against a group that can bring the heat.
And, for the fourth straight game, he didn't fumble. Was that mid-season scare a false alarm?
We already knew that Julio Jones catches everything that's within arm's length of him (although we learned Saturday night that it IS in fact possible for him to drop one now and then). We already knew that he fights like a bull for extra yards after every catch, and that the number of defensive backs in college football who can tackle him one-on-one may be counted on the fingers of one foot (I exaggerate, but not by much).
Now we know that he brings his best game when it's all on the line. Jones was beaten and battered from the first quarter to the fourth, but he just kept on bringing it, kept on turning five-yard gains into 10-yard gains, 10-yard gains into 20-yard gains. His night was best exemplified by a memorable flat-pass reception
when it seemed as if the entire LSU team was swarming Jones, and then as if guys came in off the bench to help swarm him, but he still . . . would . . . not . . . go . . . down.
A.J. Green is great. Really, I'm a big fan. But we got the one we wanted.
Other than Julio, though, it continued to be kind of a bust from our wideouts, as it has been all year. Maze wasn't tall enough for the throws he got. And Alexander made a critical error on Wilson's early brilliant dump-off throw: not when he stuck the football out, because that was a nice aggressive move, but when he LEFT IT OUT hanging in the air, even while an LSU defender held him up waiting for the next guy to arrive. Once he made that blunder, it was almost certain that he would wind up fumbling away a golden opportunity for the Tide.
Hopefully, that will be a learning moment for our young wideout corps.
Travis McCall caught two passes to add to the three he had caught all year - and turned each of them into a productive seven-yard gain. Not bad for a guy who essentially functions as an extra offensive lineman.
Nick Walker, who is also a good blocker but not nearly as good as McCall, hauled in an 18-yard strike but also dropped one and made a not-very-sterling effort to stay inbounds on another borderline throw downfield.
This was an excellent game for the unit overall. 138 yards rushing won't knock your socks off, but it's really not bad at all against a big, physical front like the one LSU throws up there.
Pass protection in this game was the best the team has provided all year, and considering the level of the competition, that's a tip-yer-hat achievement. Even Drew Davis was seen successfully keeping two different Bengals off of the Bama QB on one play.
As awful as Jarrett Lee was most of the game, he was absolutely brilliant in LSU's fourth-quarter touchdown drive, and his early touchdown pass was a thing of absolute beauty. After that touchdown pass was followed by a Javier Arenas fumble and an Alabama defensive breakdown on an LSU running play, Alabama's defense was not standing tall.
But while Alabama continued to surrender ground yards, 154 in the first half alone, it was all between-the-thirties stuff. Lee's arm kept Bama in the game throughout the first half, and then Saban and Steele made some half-time adjustments that slowed LSU's running game down considerably. Given LSU Coach Les Miles' understandable timidity about going back to the Lee well, this had the effect of neutering entirely LSU's offense - until the Dr. Jekyll Lee showed back up on the brilliant fourth-quarter drive alluded to above.
This was not one of the better games statistically for the Alabama defense, except for the picks, of course. But don't let it be forgotten that in a tight game, after getting burned for 14 points in 24 seconds in a forgettable first-quarter stretch, the Tide defense rose up. LSU would only score seven more points in the entire game, including an overtime possession, and Bama would play shut-down D for the greater part of the second half. It was enough to win.
For the first time this season, Alabama's defensive line was pretty much handled in the first half. For whatever reason - a stiff-legged Cody obviously well short of 100%, perhaps, or a fired-up LSU front - Alabama's defensive front consistently allowed itself to be locked in place by LSU blockers, giving Charles Scott, Keiland Williams and company the chamce to romp through holes for an embarrassing 154 first-stanza yards.
I'm not sure what Alabama did differently in the second half, to tell the truth, but there had to have been some sort of adjustment, for the Bayoux Bengals were limited to 47 yards on 23 carries after the intermission, a paltry 2.0 yards a pop. About the only difference I noticed in the Tide's D was more playing time for Marcel Dareus, and I dare say that accounted for at least some of the different outcome. Dareus was nothing less than the most energetic and disruptive Tide lineman while on the field, and we are hoping to see more of him as the season enters its waning, and most important, phase.
But where our defensive line won the game for us - yes, even more than Rashad Johnson, Julio Jones, or John Parker Wilson in my view - was when LSU dropped back to pass. Jarrett Lee was a surgeon when he had time, a sickly patient when under pressure. Fortunately for the good guys, Lee's definition of "under pressure" was rather loose: any time the pocket started to lose its natural shape, he could be counted on to sling it around like a loose high-pressure hose slings water.
Our guys broke down the pocket all day long. Brandon Deaderick never came particularly close to a sack, but he pushed his guy back into Lee's face, causing the startled quarterback to fire one that was as likely as not to be 5-10 yards off target, time after time, and he wasn't the only one. Although Alabama would only be credited with a single Bobby Greenwood sack and no quarterback hurries, it was all too obvious when Lee felt the crimson troops coming, and it was often. Even without the sacks or official hurries, this was as good a game of consistent pressure as our front four has generated.
The guys also racked up a few tackles, with Deaderick's eight and Fanney's seven - yeah, I'm calling Fanney a lineman, for shorthand - leading the way.
Dan'ta Hightower led all tacklers with 11 stops, including 1.5 for loss - but I guess I'm just a harsh judge on Dan'ta, because I thought I saw a bit of regression in his game. Yeah, it's hard to come down too hard on a guy with 11 tackles, but way too many of them were downfield or going the wrong direction or plays where Hightower rode the guy an extra three yards before taking him down.
McClain only had eight tackles, but they were just, well, more MANLY. When Rolando hit 'em, they did not go much farther. And give him credit for some huge plays - helping cause Rashad's first pick, grabbing a pick of his own, and perhaps the biggest of them all, stringing out LSU's sweep on 2nd and 5 in overtime and bulldogging Richard Murphy solo for a two-yard loss off the Wild Whatever The Hell formation. The big guy had 2.5 TFLs for the night, giving him eight on the season to tie for the team lead with Brandon Fanney. McClain leads the team in tackles outright, with 66 on the season.
Still wondering why we don't see more Prince Hall, who looked great in his brief period on the field. Still not pushing the subject too hard. . . .
Corey Reamer got to play more against the run-focused Tigers, and predictably kicked in a half-dozen stops. We didn't blitz a lot, and perhaps that's why we didn't see all that much of Eryk Anders and even less of Courtney Upshaw.
Considering Jarrett Lee's truly abysmal statistical line - 13-34 for 181 yards with one TD and four picks - I have a surprising number of nits to pick with Alabama's defensive backfield.
After an impressive mid-season run, Justin Woodall seems to have fallen a bit out of rhythm, and is not piling up the stats - or the fallen bodies - as he was doing a few games ago. Woodall needs to work on avoiding blockers when on an island, which is admittedly a difficult task, but still something he is not doing well. It showed on a couple of big plays Saturday, most notably Keiland Williams' 22-yard jaunt around right end early in the second quarter, where Woodall came up from safety in good shape, but instead of walling off the outside allowed himself to be needlessly trapped inside by an avoidable blocker.
Woodall also got hung up on a blocker and didn't even make a pass at Charles Scott on his disgustingly easy 30-yard first-quarter touchdown ramble. Also failing to provide safety coverage on that play was Rashad Johnson, who got sucked into the left-side counter-action and was unable to even slow Scott down on a diving attempt to get back into a play he had overrun. In Rashad's defense, much of Bama's D bit on the counter. But it wasn't the only play in the game where Rashad dove at an LSU back's ankles with the move that was so effective last week against Arkansas State, only to whiff completely.
For the second time in recent weeks, Kareem Jackson was picked on, successfully - but it wasn't as bad as it looked. The 30-yard TD strike from Jarrett Lee to Demetrius Byrd was nothing less than sheer quarterbacking perfection on a play where Jackson was only beaten by a step, and the 29-yard fourth-quarter strike to Brandon Lafell where Jackson appeared on first look to have been badly beaten turns out to have been a crossing pattern and well-executed deep offensive pick, confusing the Tide's coverage, on a play where Jackson was guarding another receiver.
Kareem is still a fine cornerback and deserving of confidence. He either stripped Brandon Lafell of the ball, leading to Johnson's first interception, or held Lafell up for Rolando McClain's big hit to cause the pick.
And let's give credit where it is due. Yes, those first two picks kind of fell into Rashad Johnson's hands - but they didn't fall out. His 54-yard TD run was particularly fine, weaving to the right sideline to avoid an LSU lineman who had him in his sights, and then cutting back across the field at the opportune moment. And if that wasn't the biggest play in the game, then it was Johnson's beautiful diving OT pick in the back of the end zone that set up the win.
But I think y'all noticed that. . . .
It was disappointing to see Leigh Tiffin struggle again Saturday. Tiffin has been an inconsistent kicker from the start of his career, looking like his old man one week, looking like an old man the next. But this makes two weeks out of three that he has struggled, and one would have hoped that he would grow more consistent through his career, not less. His play in the upcoming games is a concern.
Javier Arenas fumbled for the third straight game, but this was an entirely different character of fumble, a garden-variety drop where he got blindsided by a guy who put his hat on the ball, and not another no-fair-catch brain fart. I still don't perceive Javy as being a guy who is particularly prone to fumbling, so long as he has learned his lesson about the fair catches.
This is just guesswork - but I think he HAS learned. Arenas has always been a scientific punt returner, and I really think his lack of fair catches in the past has not been because he was too dumb to figure out when he needs to fair catch, but just because he thought he was so good that he didn't need to follow everybody else's rules. And I'm guessing he has learned better now.
P.J. Fitzgerald had another good game, bringing his punting average for the season up to 41.8. The punt return coverage has been good all year, with the 87-yard TD return by Georgia attributable to a pair of uncalled blocks in the back. But for that return, Bama's opponents have averaged a mere 6.0 per return. This week, the explosive Trindon Holliday was held to only six punt returning yards for the entire game, even though Fitzgerald punted seven times.