11 November 2008
From the first day that Nick Saban was introduced as Alabama's head football coach many football fans nationwide circled last Saturday's date on their calendar. The return of Coach Saban to the place where he had won a national title was a story ripe with intrigue; afterall, no coach in NCAA had ever returned to the home staudium of a school at which they had won a national title and won a game. The fact that Coach Saban is a volatile character, and that LSU fans are among the nation's worst (er... most passionate) fans, only added to the overall story.
On Monday of last week both Nick Saban and LSU's current head coach Les Miles did everything that they could to do to deflect the story, asking people to focus on the players. The players, they both said, would be who determined the outcome of the game. And in a lot of ways they were right. But I don't see how anyone could have watched that game and come away with anything other than Nick Saban is a far superior coach, and Alabama won that football game because of it.
LSU is a much more physically gifted group of players than Alabama. In fact, they are likely one dismissed veteran quarterback away from having been in the national title hunt all season. But the Tigers don't play like a well-oiled machine. Instead, they play like a group of talented individuals searching for a way to put things together. How else can you explain Brandon LaFell not being an issue in the first half? or Trindon Holliday not being an issue at all? They absolutely reek of poor coaching.
The opposite sidelines, however, was filled with a group of guys all pulling in the same direction. Alabama is an incredibly well coached team. Not all of the credit for that goes to Nick Saban, because Alabama has a tremendous supporting cast of assistant coaches. But let's be honest for a second... it all starts at the top.
That's not to say that Alabama is devoid of talent. The Tide has a number of guys who will almost certainly be first round NFL draft picks, though much of that talent resides in guys like Rolando McClain and Julio Jones. Thankfully they both have more time at the Capstone before they will take their prodigious talents elsewhere.
In the end, the coaches were right, though. It did come down to the players. And in the end, the better coached players won.
For Nick Saban, he continued a streak at Alabama that dates back to 1958. Since the hiring of Paul "Bear" Bryant, every Alabama coach has had at least one ten-win season (exception Mike Price who never coached a game and Joe Kines who was interim coach for one game). Something tells me that this won't be a one-time occurance for Coach Saban the way that it was for Ray Perkins, Bill Curry, Mike Dubose, Dennis Franchione, and Mike Shula. He likely won't come close to Bear Bryant's 13 times, though he could easily reach (and surpass) Gene Stallings' four times.
As for the players....
John Parker Wilson has certainly had better statistical games, but he has had very few that he managed as well. Despite throwing 16 incomplete passes he still managed to average just under seven yards per attempt. While he didn't throw for a touchdown, he did run for two, including the game winner in overtime. I'll forgive him his unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, though he should have avoided it.
Sadly, his two best plays of the night both ended negatively for the Tide:
The first came on Bama's first drive of the game, and a beautiful bit of improvisation. On a third and six from the LSU 26 John Parker was chased out of the pocket, and looked as though he might run for just a yard or two before taking a knee and setting up a field goal. Instead he peeled back from the line of scrimmage and lofted a pass over the heads of three LSU defenders to Earl Alexander, who had turned back up field. The play should have set Bama up with a first and goal around the one, but an Alexander fumble into the end zone turned the ball over.
The second came late in the fourth quarter, again on a third down play - this time on a third and eight from the LSU 32 yard line. After being chased from the pocket, this time Wilson streaked towards the LSU sidelines, and after picking up a great downfield block from Julio Jones, was able to stretch the ball over the goal line for what looked to be the winning touchdown. Unfortunately a holding call on Andre Smith brought back what could have possibly been a new career defining play for Wilson.
As it is, he'll just have to settle for the two overtime plays that he was a part of that sealed the Alabama victory. He threw a perfect pass on a stop-fade route to Julio down near the goal line on Bama's first play of overtime. It was probably his best pass of the night, and likely the most memorable of the season to this point. When I say it was perfectly thrown, I'm not exaggerating, either. The ball was put perfectly onto Julio's outside shoulder, making him the only person with a chance to catch the ball. The other play was, of course, the game winning touchdown.
His one turnover on the day came on a pass that was thrown 40 yards downfield. While it wasn't a particularly good pass, interceptions thrown that far downfield serve as pseudo-punts. I'd rather still have the ball on offense, but there are worse interceptions.
With Roy Upchurch yanked from the rotation just prior to game time with a muscle spasm in his neck, Bama headed into the game with just two running backs expected to carry the load. And it really ended up being just one.
Glen Coffee passed the 1,000 yard mark for the season en route to 132 yards on 26 carries, While that 4.8 average is well below his season average of 6.3, the fact that it came against a big, bruising LSU defense that sometimes put as many as nine guys in the box is impressive. Coffee was never flashy in this game, but was instead a workhorse. He did have one 31 yard gain, on his first carry, but past that, he had just three carries of more than ten yards.
While he ended the game with just one touchdown, he could have easily had two more. He was given an opportunity on both of those possessions to score from in close, but Wilson QB sneaks ended up earning the touchdown. If Glen just manages his season average of 102 yards per game for Bama's final four games he will have the second most prolific season in Crimson Tide history for a running back.
Mark Ingram carried the ball just five times for six yards, and was not seen again after a third down fumble. I haven't seen a replay of the play yet, but it appeared at first glance to have been a poor pitch. Regardless, the freshman needs to make certain that he catches the ball before turning his head up field.
Overall, though, this was the Glen Coffee show. And according to Glen, he could still feel all 26 of his carries on Sunday.
Alabama receivers caught ten of the 15 completions for the Tide Saturday. Be honest, though, other than the catch by Earl Alexander that resulted in a fumble, can you remember one by anyone other than Julio Jones? Alexander had another catch for one yard, and Mike McCoy had catches of six and four yards. Otherwise, it was all Julio.
It seems as though we don't, as a fan base, really have a grasp for just how special this guy is just yet. There were plays on Saturday where it took six LSU defenders to finally stop his forward movement up field. He is making the kind of plays as a true freshman that Texas Tech all-world redshirt sophomore Michael Crabtree is making. He has an outside shot at racking up a 1,000 yard receiving season as a true freshman.
While he totalled seven reception for 128 yards, the one in overtime will likely be the one that you'll see time and time again on Alabama highlight reals. I talked above about how perfect a pass it was, but that play is also dependant on a perfect route. Julio ran Patrick Peterson out of the route before turning around and making an athletic catch. He wasn't satisfied with just making the catch, though, as he turned up field and draggged Peterson an addition yard or two to get Bama down to the one yard line.
It should be very interesting to see what Bama does with Julio over the next few weeks. It's not like he was ever a secret, but coming off of back to back SEC games with better than 100 yards receiving, you have to figure that Mississippi State, Auburn, and Florida are scheming now on how to stop him. And do I need to mention again that he is just a true freshman? Wow.
Nick Walker got back into the action, catching one pass for 18 yards. And Travis McCall had his biggest game of the season, catching two passes on play-action plays for seven yards each. Throw in two catches for Glen Coffee, and you get the total of 15 on the day. Marquis Maze and Nikita Stover each had balls thrown their way, though neither guy came up with a reception.
While Bama only managed 138 yards rushing has to be a bit disappointing to this group, the fact that John Parker Wilson was not sacked in the ball game has to be a huge source of satisfaction. The Tigers defense got to Wilson seven times in 2007, including the final one that forced the fumble that determined the outcome of the game. In fact, LSU only managed one quarterback hurry on the day, and that came on a safety blitz.
There was, of course, the holding penalty on Andre Smith that brought back what could have been the game winning touchdown. But that was the only penalty on the group the entire night. In fact, it was the only live ball penalty on Bama all night, with the Tide's other flag being earned on the aforementioned unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
One would guess that Bama will head back to the ground this weekend, giving these guys a chance to drive block to their heart's content. But the fact that they did not give up a sack at LSU is something that should not be forgotten any time soon.
You have to give LSU credit for scheming well for the run. The Tigers ran a nice counter play to take advantage of Bama's pursuit on defense, and it helped lead LSU to 201 yards rushing - a season high allowed by the Tide. Though in all fairness, 30 yards of that came on a blown assignment during LSU's first TD run, and another 25 came on an option play that saw Bama blitz to the other side.
Still, the Tigers were able to effectively run the ball for one half of football. Bama adjusted at the half and allowed just 50 rushing yards in the second half and overtime periods. Much of the credit for that goes to the guys up front for the Tide, who combined to total 18 tackles, including one for a loss. Throw in Brabdon Fanney's seven tackles, including one for a loss, and you end up with a solid day for the guys up front.
With Terrence Cody limited a bit by his injury, and frequent LSU holds, both Josh Chapman and Marcel Dareus saw lots of time in the middle. Dareus has become the third and long guy in the middle, using his speed and strength as brutal combination to help rush the quarterback. Expect to see more of that in Bama's final four games.
Ho-hum, another 32 tackles by the linebackers who stand up during the game. This group was led by Don'ta Hightower, who had a game 11 stops, that included one and half for a loss. Hightower put up the big numbers, but had to replaced by Prince Hall for a stretch of the game when LSU was taking advantage of his aggressiveness. A lot of us expected Hall to make an impact much earlier in the season, but the fact that he was ready to go when called on here says a lot about his growth over the course of the season.
For Rolando McClain, this was just another game for him to showcase his awesome skills. He picked off his third career pass thanks to a great play by Ali Sharrief, and looked Julio Jones-like in his return, shrugging off several LSU tacklers. But Rolando's highlight play came on LSU's second play in overtime.
After running Charles Scott right up the guy for seven yards on the first play of the extra stanza, the LSU coaches decided to out-smart themselves buy running a direct snap to tailback Richard Murphy on the second play. The line did a great job of string the play out towards the LSU sidelines, but it was McClain who came in and put the emphatic final stamp on the play, dropping Murphy for a loss of three yards.
Cory Reamer and Eryk Anders both saw a lot of action, with Reamer racking up six tackles on the day. Anders' specialty this season has been QB hurries, and since the LSU stats crew decided not to award any on the day, Eryk just had to settle for his two tackles and one PBU.
Do you remember early in the season when it seemed like Rashad Johnson was making one very poor play during the course of every game? I'd say he's put that behind him. He's earned the Walter Camp and Bronko Nagurski foundations National Defensive Player of Week awards, as well as the SEC Defensive Player of the Week after his three interception game.
The first INT was a bit of luck, after the ball was tipped out of the hands of Demetrius Byrd, Johnson happened to be the guy that the ball bounced two. Really, the second INT was a bit of luck, also, with Jarrett Lee over throwing his receiver by a good ten yards right into the hands of Rashad. There was nothing about the 54 yard return for a TD that was lucky, though. After waiting until the ninth game of his senior season to score his first TD, Rashad made it two in a row with a fantastic return down the LSU sidelines for a TD that tied the game at 14.
The third INT shows you what Rashad is all about, though. After the half LSU adjusted to rolling Lee out of the pocket to his right to give him more time to throw. And it worked for a large part of the second half, with Lee getting into a little bit of a rhythm. But in overtime Rashad read the play and sprinted right when Lee rolled that way. The result was him beating the LSU receiver to the ball and snagging his school record tying thrid pick of the day.
Lots of folks have seen fit to jump on Kareem Jackson after Saturday. While he didn't have his best day, anytime that a secondary hold a quarterback to 13 of 34 on the day, everybody has to have played well. There are times when defensive backs are going to get beat, and Kareem had that happen a couple of times. In all, though, he combined with the rest of the Tide secondary to keep Lee from hurting the Tide.
Ali Sharrief deserves a special kudos for his execution of a blitz that led to Rolando McClain's interception. He hit Jarrett Lee as he threw the ball, in what is the very definition of a QB hurry, causing the ball to flutter weakly into the air. I'm not sure why the LSU stats crew decided not to reward Ali for his play, but I've given up on understanding why stats crews do or don't give hurries.
Tyrone King, Marquis Johnson, and Javier Arenas deserve a mention, not for any one specific play, but because they also contributed to Lee's nightmare day.
The less said here, the better. I'm just going to mention the great day that PJ Fitzgerald had, and leave it at that.
Bama has been tested now, trailing in this game for almost an entire quarter. Bama had to make plays in the fourth quarter and over time to win a game on the road against a good football team.
In looking at the schedule in preseason, I thought that there was no chance of Bama being able to win all five of its games away from Bryant-Denny Stadium. This win put the cap on that particular accomplishment, and sets the Tide up for a chance for 2008 to be a really special year. Two tough home games remain, plus two other potentially big games. But for now, I don't have to abide by Coach Saban's 24 hour rule, so I'm going to keep on celebrating this 27-21 victory over LSU.