By Jess Nicholas
Nov. 9, 2014
For a time during Alabama’s last-minute drive to tie the game and its lone series in overtime to win it, it seemed like every player who had ever been a part of a negative play in Alabama history was taking turns coming onto the field and redeeming himself.
Adam Griffith, who had missed a 27-yard kick early in the game, made another 27-yard kick to tie the game. Christion Jones, whose senior season has been one missed opportunity after another, made the catch of his life to set up Griffin’s game-tying kick. O.J. Howard set up Jones’ catch with several short catches of his own. And then Nick Perry, whose greatest sin as a safety in Alabama’s defense is that he’s not as good as Landon Collins, broke up a pass on the game’s penultimate play.
After a time, Alabama fans probably began looking for Ed Scissum to show up and petition for one final play of eligibility.
Those who want to do something to romanticize this team and this season – like it needs any help – would probably start by looking for a single, fancy word to use to describe what we’ve seen so far. The word “resilient” isn’t fancy, but it fits.
Alabama was all but called out of the running after losing to Ole Miss early in the season, even though recent history has shown it to be virtually impossible for a college football season to finish with more than one or two undefeated teams. Instead, Alabama went to work, survived a scare at Arkansas, took a good shot from a Tennessee team that has rediscovered its pride (if not its ability), and now finds itself leaving Death Valley victorious in the final seconds of yet another Alabama-LSU game.
On top of that, Alabama won almost in spite of itself. If Alabama were to play this game another nine times, the Crimson Tide just might go 10-for-10, counting tonight. LSU’s offense is a mess right now for lack of a passing game, and its defense is vulnerable in spots.
But Alabama didn’t really press its advantages in matchups (more on that later) and seemed to play into the teeth of the Tiger defense for most of the night. As one would expect, until the last two drives, Blake Sims had not been a factor, nor was he getting much help from Amari Cooper, who had dropped multiple passes. Finally, there was T.J. Yeldon’s injury and subsequent fumble, which set up LSU to score a touchdown and put the game away for good.
But LSU guard Vadal Alexander shoved A’Shawn Robinson after the whistle, and Tom Ritter’s crew – which to that point, and afterward, had consistently let the two teams play and set the pace – flagged him for it. As a result, LSU eventually had to settle for a field goal, which led to the Tigers kicking the ensuing kickoff out of bounds, which gave Alabama’s game-tying drive the boost it needed.
In a game that had been defined to that point by a lot of mutual respect and the atmosphere of a stalemate, Alabama took full advantage of its opportunities. Sims’ final two drives called to mind Alabama’s 1985 Iron Bowl win over Auburn, when Mike Shula led Alabama back from a 23-22 deficit and Van Tiffin sent Tide fans home happy with a last-second field goal. LSU fans and students could only sit silent and dumbfounded as Anthony Jennings’ final pass was broken up by Cyrus Jones and Jabriel Washington, and Alabama went home a winner and, quite likely, the replacement for Auburn in next week’s projected playoff final four.
Alabama has long been able to treat Death Valley like an annex of its home field, the noise and the live tiger mascot and the overall, Cajun-flavored weirdness no more than just dust to be brushed off the shoulderpads. It’s likely no game in this series will ever be a blowout, so long as Nick Saban and Les Miles coach their respective teams. But it’s also clear that Alabama has asserted itself as the alpha in this relationship. In Alabama’s last four trips to Baton Rouge, the Tide is 3-1, with two of those three wins coming in overtime and the third coming in the waning moments of regulation. Not only is Alabama winning, the Tide regularly does so in the clutch.
The biggest challenge this week for Alabama will be for the coaching staff to quickly get the team off the emotional high it’s on now, and get ready for a dangerous Mississippi State team. And given that Alabama might not have T.J. Yeldon available for the game, it’s even more important than it would have been before.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-LSU.
1. Playcalling made little sense for about 59 minutes. Alabama kept attacking the corners of LSU’s defense, which is not exactly the Tigers’ soft spot. LSU’s weakness (for now) is its defensive tackle positions, which are young and lack depth. Nick Saban, post-game, said Alabama checked into pass plays when LSU showed press coverage, but it should have been clear from about the second quarter on that the strategy wasn’t working. Alabama didn’t run the ball badly; Alabama ran for 3.7 yards per carry total, but with sack yardage taken out, the average jumped to 4.3 yards per carry. Yet Alabama never really tested LSU’s run defense on a consistent basis. The only time Alabama’s offense looked decent – until the end, that is – was when LSU MLB Kendell Beckwith went out with an ankle injury, and Alabama exposed his replacement, D.J. Welter. Alabama’s two-minute drill was well executed, and then Lane Kiffin pulled out all the stops to get a touchdown on the opening drive in overtime. But a large part of that drive’s success was Derrick Henry running to the left. Alabama should probably have tried to run the ball more despite whatever LSU’s cornerbacks were doing; how crazy is it to suggest Alabama should have been more conservative than it was? But props go to Kiffin for dialing up a great start to overtime, which leads us to …
2. The best thing to happen to Alabama in overtime? It lost the toss. In virtually all cases, teams prefer to go on defense first in overtime, so that its offense knows what it has to do to win (or tie) the game in the second half of the first possession. But by virtue of going on offense first, Alabama gave its defense added time to rest. More importantly, though, Alabama’s offense was on a roll, having successfully executed a two-minute drill to tie the game, and LSU was still on its heels a bit. When Alabama ran a hidden tackle-eligible play for a big gain on the first play of overtime, it set the tone for the period and deflated the LSU defense even further. By the time the LSU offense got back to the field, it had gone from being up 13-10 to down 20-13 and had no answer.
3. Blake Sims. Again. Sims didn’t play particularly well for much of the game, although he didn’t make any huge mistakes either. The closest he came was on a ball that LSU DE Danielle Hunter tipped about midway through the game; had Hunter not tipped the pass, it was going straight to an LSU defensive back. Still, Sims’ decision-making and ability to get the Alabama offense settled without communication breakdowns was in deep question – right up to the point that he began to play like Peyton Manning, Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck, all at the same time. Sims has now run multiple, successful two-minute drills against multiple opponents, and has shown his ability to perform under fire. His stats from this game – 20-of-45, 44.4%, 209 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT, 5 carries, 12 yards, 2.4 avg., 0 TD – won’t win any awards, but his leadership under fire can no longer be questioned. It’s possible that Alabama actually upgraded at this position with the departure of A.J. McCarron and the ascension of Sims.
4. Team attitude was in the right place all night. Alabama never allowed itself to feel defeated or intimidated, which it clearly did in its only loss to Ole Miss. Instead, Alabama approached the final sequence of drives in the same cerebral, calculating manner that has marked multiple comebacks and late-game clinches throughout the Nick Saban era. Rather than get frustrated with the lack of offensive production, Alabama’s defense simply responded as if this were a chess match, with field position the primary focus. Only T.J. Yeldon’s fumble flipped the script, but Alabama again kept its cool, drew LSU’s Vadal Alexander into making a critical mental error, and then ran a two-minute drill for the ages after the Tigers kicked a go-ahead field goal. In overtime, it was clear which team felt more comfortable once the pressure was applied. If Alabama is to win out – which will include games against Mississippi State, Auburn, and likely either Georgia or Missouri – and make the final four, it will need to be able to keep the same even keel when things go sideways.
5. Alabama’s secondary plays the game of its life. Cornerback Cyrus Jones and FS Nick Perry both played the best games of their careers, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. LSU continuously attacked Jones, a curious strategy given that Jones has been arguably the most consistent SEC cornerback in 2014. Perry’s huge play on third down in overtime, breaking up a pass, may have been the single most-important defensive play of the night. Eddie Jackson was a blanket on his man for the entire game, and Landon Collins played superb football yet again, which is sort of his default setting. Somewhat under the radar, Jabriel Washington turned in a solid performance as the dime safety, a position he seems to have taken away from Maurice Smith. Smith is a bigger body at the position, but Smith has also made a handful of key mental errors. In all, Alabama held LSU’s Jennings to the following numbers through the air: 8-of-26 (30.8%), 76 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT. Jennings actually did most of his damage on the ground, but he still averaged just 3.1 yards per carry, and most of his positive-yardage runs were due to coverage strategies that left the middle of the field open. In all, Alabama was lights-out all night, never giving up a truly big play other than Jennings’ touchdown pass.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN