Upset-proof Tide just keep rolling
The No. 3 Tide sport Honda-like reliability with a Jaguar engine
This is a classic Nick Saban team: One that controls both sides of the ball
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- We interrupt your regularly scheduled upsets to bring you a report on the most efficient team in America. In case you slept through it, Alabama steamrolled another opponent Saturday. This time it was Arkansas, an alleged budding offensive juggernaut led by a mad genius coach and cannon-armed quarterback.
Sorry, national television audience. Alabama refused to get caught in the rise-and-fall cycle that consumed Ole Miss, Cal and Miami this week. Alabama is the football equivalent of Honda, cranking out a reliable, dependable, un-sexy product that will roll for 300,000 miles as long as coach Nick Saban keeps changing the oil.
If all this sounds boring, it's not. There's something comforting in a team built to dominate both lines of scrimmage. There's a touch of they-don't-make-em-like-that-anymore nostalgia for team that still uses the run to set up the pass. "Being efficient," Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy said, "is the best compliment you can ask for."
McElroy is Captain Efficiency. On Saturday, he completed 17 of 24 passes for 291 yards and three touchdowns. That equates to a passer rating of 213.9. On the other side of the ball, Alabama allowed a stingily efficient 3.8 yards a play and 4.7 yards per pass attempt. Entering Saturday, Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett averaged 11.8 yards per pass. On Saturday, the Crimson Tide sacked Mallett three times, hurried him eight times and held him to 160 passing yards. Alabama did all that despite a first-quarter knee injury to sophomore linebacker Dont'a Hightower that might knock the defense's most dynamic player out for the season.
In the age of the 85-scholarship limit, we're conditioned to expect upsets. It's not a satisfying college football weekend without them. That's great for fans and terrible for coaches and players, who must keep winning if they hope to play for a national title. For them, boring is great. Boring is a far superior alternative to what happened to the Rebels, Golden Bears and Hurricanes.
Since Alabama's season-opening slugfest against Virginia Tech, the Crimson Tide have faced little adversity. On the rare occasion when the Tide has been challenged, they've responded with extreme prejudice. On Saturday, Mallett hit tight end D.J. William for a 23-yard gain on what Saban called an "Oh [shoot] screen." Two plays later, Mallett threw an 18-yard touchdown to Greg Childs to cut Alabama's lead to 14-7. On the next play from scrimmage, McElroy hit Marquis Maze blazing down the right sideline for an 80-yard score.
The loss of Hightower was handled with equal efficiency. Cory Reamer, Eryk Anders and Courtney Upshaw all pitched in to help the Tide continue to run a pressure-heavy, coverage-disguising scheme designed by Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart to confound Mallett. That Alabama replaced such an important cog in its defense so seamlessly would be surprising if the Tide hadn't practiced for just such an occasion during the preseason. Reamer said that some days, the Tide would play as if one defensive starter or another had been lost for the season. So when Hightower went down, Alabama players knew exactly what to do. "We had practices where we'd all have to play different positions," Reamer said. "It didn't surprise anybody. We were ready to go right off the bat."
Most teams couldn't be ready because they wouldn't have the depth. Alabama used to be one of those teams. "A couple of years ago," Reamer said, "I don't know if we'd been able to do that." Now, like Florida, Texas and USC, the Tide can simply shove another blue-chipper into the fray.
This isn't to say that Alabama is vanilla. The Tide's second touchdown is perfect evidence: Tailback Mark Ingram lined up in the Wildcat, while McElroy split wide. The snap went to Ingram, who handed off to Terry Grant on a jet sweep. Grant flipped the ball to McElroy, who hit a wide-open Julio Jones for a 50-yard touchdown. This Honda has a Ferrari engine. It's just that Saban and his staff don't run it wide open very often.
A more telling statistic is the fact that while Alabama only had one scoring drive longer than 3:14, the Tide still kept the ball seven minutes longer than the Razorbacks. The lone long drive was a 99-yarder that might never have gotten rolling had McElroy not altered the inflection of his cadence to draw a Razorback offsides and get the Tide off their own goal line. McElroy downplayed the importance of his quick thinking; but like the auto designer who puts the cupholder in the perfect spot, the little things matter.
So call the Tide efficient. Heck, call Alabama boring. It doesn't matter, as long as at the end of the day you also call it a winner.
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