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By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Nov. 4, 2012
There are a pair of sayings in competitive bowling that, rather illogically, apply to college football from time to time.
The first is “out-bowling your score,” which is a term for making great shots but not scoring as highly as you thought you should. The second is “outscoring yourself,” which translates roughly into getting a better score than you might have otherwise deserved, given your efforts.
In other words, you were fortunate to just get the breaks.
Alabama finds itself squarely in the latter camp following an effort against LSU that few would categorize as superior. Even when Alabama found itself taking an 11-point lead into the half, it didn’t feel like Alabama was really in control of the game. There were plenty of signs already becoming evident that this game wasn’t going to go as planned.
The play of LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger was already surprising by the half, and Mettenberger had yet to do his best work. In the hours after the game ended, Mettenberger was the talk of pundits and fans alike, but it wasn’t his play alone that nearly allowed LSU to upset Alabama. It was the way in which LSU pushed Alabama’s front seven around with a running game that was methodical and effective, if not game-breaking, that should cause the most concern going forward.
And then, the last minute and 30-something seconds happened, and all of a sudden no one wants to talk about – or even remember – the preceding 58:30. Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron, who had been effectively shut down by the Tiger secondary, led one of the most memorable comeback drives in the long, storied history of the school, and a game that looked lost many times over suddenly became a crimson-coated victory. McCarron went from bust right back into the middle of the Heisman Trophy conversation in the process.
It’s debatable whether Alabama needed a game like this in order to focus itself in future weeks, but Alabama fans probably needed it. There had been plenty of talk in the days leading up to this game whether Alabama would stand a chance against an NFL bottom-feeder, a ridiculous notion by itself but one that had the potential to over-inflate a few teenage egos. The happiest man in the world right now is probably Nick Saban, who will have no shortage of needles on hand to burst bubbles and get the team (and especially, the Alabama secondary) refocused on short-term goals rather than lofty hypotheticals.
One of the smartest things Lou Holtz has ever said in his life is, “You never have the same team two weeks in a row.” For Alabama, this is most fortunate, because Alabama will have to improve to beat Texas A&M next Saturday. But Holtz’s quote also applies backwards, and is the explanation for why Alabama could so thoroughly dominate teams like Michigan and Mississippi State, then look like it did for most of the LSU tilt.
Simply put, college football doesn’t always make sense. Scores can’t be compared week-to-week. How a team did one Saturday is in no way connected to how it will do the following Saturday. Teams either improve, or backslide. There is no standing still.
Now we move on to this week’s Five-Point Breakdown:
1. Adjustments, particularly in pass defense, were slow to come. Les Miles may have gone 0-for-4 on critical in-game calls, but he did one of the best preparation jobs for a Nick Saban-coached team since Dennis Franchione took his 2002 Alabama squad to Baton Rouge and disassembled Saban’s LSU Tigers 31-0. LSU’s offensive gameplan, particularly in the way it managed the wideouts’ route trees and Mettenberger’s reads, was spot-on. The real question is why Alabama never adjusted defensively. Saban specifically mentioned in postgame interviews how LSU rolled its tight ends to the sideline to put its wide receivers in the slot against Alabama’s safeties. This was not some foreign subterfuge; Alabama used the same trick in 2010 with Michael Williams or Marquis Maze outside of Julio Jones in the slot. But Alabama had no in-game fix this time, and as a result, LSU consistently burned all safeties not named Robert Lester. Don’t think Texas A&M and its deep wideout corps weren’t watching, either.
2. Offensive gameplan was slow to catch on, too. This is a bit easier to understand, as no one thought Alabama’s running game would be as effective as it was against LSU’s front seven. But Alabama averaged 6.6 yards per carry for the game – LSU, incidentally, averaged 2.8 yards per carry, and you will win a bar bet with that stat in a few years once people forget this game – yet the Tide was determined to throw to win for much of the contest. The passing game didn’t ignite until LSU backed its secondary off into a soft zone for the first 40 yards of the Tide’s final drive – which, in turn, set up the perfect playcall against pressure for Alabama’s game-winning touchdown screen play. These are the kinds of scenarios that drive coaches berserk, as it begs the question of whether to abandon the pre-game plan (aggressive passing attack) for something that appears to be working better. Unfortunately, Alabama never really got the chance to find out, as its defense …
3. … couldn’t get off the field on third down. File this under point No. 1 as well, as we’ve already mentioned the struggles at safety in this game, but as we mentioned in our preview to this game, Alabama hadn’t spent a lot of time in base defense this year thanks to the kinds of offenses it was facing. As such, there was little material to go on in regards to how well the base set would fare in stopping a power offense like LSU’s. The game in which Alabama probably spent the most time in base? Western Kentucky, and while the Hilltoppers never scored, the game against WKU was regarded by many people as the toughest for Alabama in 2012 until this point. What Alabama learned against LSU is that it misses players like Dont’a Hightower and Mark Barron immensely. Alabama has good linebackers, but it doesn’t have a physical middle linebacker who can stick his nose in the middle and meet a fullback head-on. Nick Perry, who is the first option at strong safety when Alabama is in base formation, struggled in pass coverage. This was not Vinnie Sunseri’s finest three hours, either. Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix arguably had the best go of it among the players who rotate at that position, but his work was a “C” grade at best. On top of that, CB Deion Belue had problems against LSU’s more physical receivers. Basically, what could go wrong, did, and Alabama kept it close thanks to point No. 4:
4. Aside from the final drive, special teams won the game for Alabama. And you can thank Les Miles for this. All four of Miles’ key calls were related to the kicking game – an ill-advised fake field goal that fooled no one, a much-too-long field goal attempt that did nothing but affect PK Drew Alleman’s confidence, a decision to go for it on fourth down well within normal field-goal range, and the decision to kick the last field goal, which was in range but still a questionable decision given how tired Alabama’s defense was at the time. On the flip side, Jeremy Shelley made all of his kicks, Alabama covered kicks and punts reasonably well and punter Cody Mandell had his best game in crimson.
5. Injuries have officially reached critical mass. Running back Eddie Lacy didn’t return after injuring an already-sore ankle, leaving only T.J. Yeldon to shoulder the load. Fortunately, Yeldon stepped up in a big way rather than folding up after he and McCarron botched an exchange deep in LSU territory, a play on which Yeldon would almost certainly have scored. Kenyan Drake, the third-team back, will have to quickly improve his pass blocking, because Lacy is just too beaten up to be counted upon down the stretch. The injury that really put the screws in, though, was the one that claimed WR Amari Cooper. McCarron overthrew Cooper on a sure touchdown pass in the first quarter, which was partially due to Cooper being slowed from an ankle injury of his own. After he was knocked out of the game for good in the second quarter, Alabama was forced to go with Marvin Shinn at the position. Shinn is one of Alabama’s best blocking wideouts, but he doesn’t have Cooper’s fluidity or ability to get open on routes just yet the way Cooper can. Kevin Norwood again stepped up when called upon, but Alabama cannot afford any further injuries to key personnel the rest of the way in.
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