30 November 2009
It shouldn't be too surprising that Alabama came out of the tunnel without focus for this game. The Tide, which thrives on routine, was playing on six days rest. Memories of six straight losses to a particular team become ancient and irrelevant awfully quickly when you schooled that team 36-0 the year before, and have beaten them like a drum in recruiting three years running. It may not be forgivable, but it's certainly understandable that the Tide appeared to be thinking about next Saturday's Game of the Millenium a wee bit in the first quarter on Friday.
But then Auburn got their attention. The Tigers kept playing hard, but a 14-point lead was not enough against a focused Tide.
Shades of Utah
That's twice in the last 13 games that Alabama has meandered out onto the field in the first quarter and faced an inspired team ready to make things happen from the get-go. And twice Alabama was shell-shocked and facing a big deficit by approximately the mid-way point of the first quarter.
Maybe the only difference is that Auburn isn't quite as good as Utah was. Once the Tigers had rummaged through their bag of tricks - and once the Tide's defenders got their head in the game - it was pretty much shutdown time.
Part of the early dominance was excellent execution by Auburn on a few trick plays. But the Tide had a couple of notable early breakdowns.
Start with the 67-yard TD run by Terrell Zachery on the reverse pitchout. Yes, Auburn's execution of that play was superb, and several Tigers showed great hustle in getting downfield to block, but virtually the entire Alabama defense has to take some blame. To start with, most of the defense bit on the fake right. Eryk Anders read the play but was sealed off. Kareem Jackson was left on an island with an offensive lineman, and did a good job of ducking under the block, but Zachery cut away from him and behind the lineman. Mark Barron allowed himself to be blocked to the ground by a wide receiver, and may have been taking too aggressive an angle to get there anyway. Justin Woodall was completely suckered and never got there, even when Zachery cut back. Ali Sharrief wasn't suckered quite so badly, but never quite got there. Javy Arenas overran the play badly and had no prayer on the cutback. Marquis Johnson played off a block and got in position to make the play, but he also reacted slowly to the cutback and then got blocked.
The other early breakdown, the onside kick, is easier to explain: the Tide was snoozing. I've been watching football since about 1962, and I'm not sure I recall an easier onside recovery. Only Brad Smelley was in any position to make a play, and he kind of half-heartedly stood around to get blocked instead of diving for the ball.
In the game's first 9 minutes, 18 seconds, Auburn racked up 144 yards of offense. Then things got better.
Over the next 50 minutes, 42 seconds, the Plainsmen got another 188. Take away the 71-yard third quarter TD pass and the last two minutes of each half (when the Tigers got yards but not points), and Auburn only got another 38 yards of offense in the entire rest of the game. (Speaking of the 71-yard pass, it resulted from the mistake of a single guy, Mark Barron, who gambled and got burned when a corner blitz left him with single coverage on a wideout, a situation where Barron shouldn't have been gambling.)
Auburn's Run Defense
Beats the hell out of me where that came from. One of the worst rushing defenses in the SEC stuffed Alabama's run game, holding it to 73 yards and a 2.1 yards per carry average. As I wrote in my pre-game piece, I expected Mark Ingram to have a field day. He did not, and really he didn't have much of a chance.
Alabama's brain trust stuck with the run, with 35 rushing attempts in 67 plays. Can't say that I blame ‘em, because frankly it was the fourth quarter before I really believed that they were actually shutting us down.
And no, even after further review, I've got no explanation. Auburn just played well. We didn't have a long run, and there weren't even any almost-big runs for us. We got stuffed.
Greg has gotten a lot of accolades over this game, and rightly so. He sucked it up in the clutch and joined the pantheon. No matter what happens in the future, he's got this one on his resume. And speaking of the future, quarterbacks tend to operate with an increased confidence level once they get a drive or two like this one under the belt.
But Greg made a few snap judgments on the day that weren't quite spot on. He rushed a couple of passes, he tucked it a bit early a couple of times, and on one occasion tried to force one in on the sideline when it appeared he could have run for the first down.
He's in the second level now of dealing with tough pass defenses - he knows what's going on, and he's avoiding mistakes, but sometimes he needs another micro-second that he doesn't have to make positive plays. It didn't take him all that long to get from the panic level to this level, and there is still time in this season for him to start knocking on the door of the third level, the level where he makes split-second decisions to find the openings against gambling, aggressive D.
He's a smart guy, and he's got the right attitude. He wants to make something happen on every play, but he understands that avoiding mistakes is his first job. He's a good quarterback on the verge of becoming something better.
Setting Up the Drive
With 10:37 left in the fourth quarter, Auburn got the ball with 1st and 10 on the Bama 44 and a 21-20 lead, after Alabama had been unable to get a first down from the shadow of its goal line. (Auburn was much helped there by a great third-down defensive stop on Mark Ingram by the back judge, but at least it didn't cost us the game.) After a one-yard gain and a Rolando McClain tackle, a seven-yard loss when Kareem Jackson busted a sweep with a run blitz, and a 10-yard loss on a McClain sack - with Javy coming in right behind in case McClain somehow missed - Auburn faced 4th and 26.
Julio Jones came up huge, with no less than four first-down receptions, two of them on third-down conversions. The Tide faced three first downs on the drive, and got two first downs and a TD out of them.
As I mentioned above, everybody knows what McElroy did on the drive, but here are the highlights. After missing to Darius Hanks on the drive's opening play, McElroy hit on seven out of seven, including the aforementioned third-down conversions.
It wasn't much of a game for Mark Ingram's Heisman chances, but #22's best run of the night came when it most counted. On 2nd and 15 early in the drive, after McElroy had been sacked on first down, Ingram turned a flat pass into a 10-yard gain with some of his patented wrecking-ball running. That made it third and five, and an easier conversion from #12 to #8 on the next play.
The TD came, of course, off an excellentplay call. If you have been watching the Tide run the Mount Cody TD offense all year, you've noticed that opposing defenses tend to fixate on #62. The guys in front of him start commending their souls to God, and the guys on either side start thinking about darting in from the side after he passes to make a play amidst the carnage. It's been pretty obvious that we could play-action out of that, and nearly as obvious that we should save that play call for a big moment.
Well, this was it. We did not want a field goal, we wanted a TD. No point in leaving that play call in the bank, drawing interest.
15 plays, 79 yards. 7:03 and two Auburn timeouts burned. 1:24 and one Auburn timeout left when it ended.
Bits and Pieces
Colin Peek looked much healthier this week. That's great news for us, not so great for Florida. Look for him to be a big part of the gameplan on Saturday.
Marcell Dareus didn't have a huge game statistically, but he really showed his physical abilities on a couple of plays: one where he chased Chris Todd and did not catch him but did not lose ground, either, and another where he got double-teamed and bull-rushed the double-team to get quick pressure.
Trent Richardson ran hard, like he does every week. This week, it was vital.
Alabama's much-reviled (by me) kickoff-return coverage got it done when it most counted, holding Auburn to a 17-yard return to the 25 after the game-winning TD.
Javy had a big game, with 62 yards of punt return yardage. 42 more to break the NCAA record. May he break it by 100. Make that 200. This week.
On the other hand, there is far from any guarantee he will get 42 in the remaining two games. It's real easy to get zero punt return yards for a game. Florida, in particular, doesn't punt much and covers well when they do.
There are two ways to interpret this game, if you're going to try to get a bead on what is going to happen in Atlanta next Friday. One is that Alabama really isn't all that good, after all, and for what it's worth, I don't buy that one. As it turns out, this isn't the first time we've seen the Tide play this season, and we're kind of past the discovery stage with this team. We know what they're about.
When I'm trying to make predictions or beat the spread, whether for fun or profit, one factor I've always counted on as a reliable indicator is this: a team that performs poorly the week before a big game usually performs well in the big game. That's the second way to interpret this game: as Alabama looking past an opponent that proved to be capable enough to take advantage of that lapse. That's what I think happened, and that's why I think Bama's performance against Auburn augurs well, not poorly, for next week.
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