January 05, 2010
Breaking down the mythical championship.
As tantalizing match-ups go, they don't get much better than the nation's No. 1 rushing defense butting heads with the Heisman winner with the national championship on the line in the Rose Bowl, and Thursday's Texas-Alabama tilt puts it all on the table: When the Crimson Tide have the ball, the battle of strengths and wills on the line of scrimmage could border on historic.
In one corner, the Longhorn D gave up fewer yards and fewer touchdowns than any other team, hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher and held all but two opposing offenses below three yards per carry; two of the best offenses the 'Horns saw, Texas Tech and Oklahoma, actually finished with negative yardage on the ground thanks to the vicious UT pass rush. On the other side, Alabama went over 200 yards rushing nine times, mostly courtesy of All-American workhorse Mark Ingram, who led the nation in runs of at least 10 and 20 yards and smashed the school's single-seasing rushing record en route to the famous hardware.
The only individual player to find any significant room against Texas on the ground was Texas A&M quarterback Jerrod Johnson, whose prowess as a scrambler from the shotgun isn't about to be replicated by pedestrian Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy. The Tide will make their living with Ingram and freshman Trent Richardson or (like essentially every other attack with the misfortune of trying to against the 'Horns this year), they won't make it all. To 'Bama's credit, though, there's not much chance Ingram and his mates are going to be intimidated by some gaudy numbers across the way: The Tide ripped the two elite defenses they faced, Virginia Tech and Florida, for 268 and 251 yards on the ground, respectively, in the first and last games of the year. Other respectable defenses (defined below as units that finished in the top half of the country against the run) didn't fare much better in between:
Alabama Rushing vs. Top 60 Rushing Defenses
• Sept. 5 vs. Virginia Tech. Ingram foreshadowed his breakout season with a 150-yard romp in an occasionally sloppy but ultimately dominant 34-24 win over the Hokies, who didn't allow 30 points again all season and finished as usual among the top defenses in the country in yards (No. 12 nationally) and points (No. 10) nationally. Roy Upchurch added 90 yards on just seven carries before yielding the top backup job to freshman Trent Richardson for the rest of the year.
• Oct. 10 at Ole Miss. Ingram ripped the Rebels (a top-25 unit in total and scoring D at year's end despite struggles against the run) for 172 yards, accounting for almost half of the Tide's total yards and the game's only touchdown in a 22-3 win.
• Oct. 17 vs. South Carolina. Ingram thundered into the Heisman picture with a bruising, 246-yard effort to bail out a nonexistent passing game (star receiver Julio Jones didn't touch the ball), again accounting for the only offensive touchdown on an all-Ingram drive in the fourth quarter: Six plays, six carries, 68 yards, 20-6 'Bama win on ice.
• Nov. 7 vs. LSU. Ingram hit the Tigers for 144 yards on 6.6 per carry, the fifth in a seven-game run with at least 100 yards (I'll spot him the yard in a 99-yard effort against Tennessee).
• Dec. 5 vs. Florida Ingram locked up the Heisman by pounding out 113 yards and three touchdowns against the league's other truly dominant defense, with Richardson and Upchurch combining for another 137 to hand the Gators their worst day against the run since 2003.
The one conspicuous omission from that impressive list is the post-Thanksgiving tilt against one of the SEC's worst rushing defenses, Auburn, which reversed its usual generosity just long enough to corral Ingram and grind the Tide offense to a halt. The soon-to-be Heisman winner limped to 34 yards with a long gain of eight, eventually yielding down the stretch to Richardson, who didn't fare much better. The Tigers loaded the box against the 'Bama running game to force McElroy to beat them with his arm -- which he eventually did, on an eight-minute, pass-happy drive for the winning touchdown -- and Ingram said today he expects to see the same look from the Longhorns.
Texas, on the other hand, hasn't seen much of the straight-ahead, old-school thumping it figures to get from the Tide Thursday night, in style or substance. The 'Horns haven't faced a runner of Ingram's caliber, or even an offense that makes an effort to consistently pound away with a rotation of between-the-tackles runners; the vast majority of the Big 12 spends its time working from the spread, often exclusively from the shotgun. One of the reasons no one has been able to establish any kind of consistency against the 'Horns is that no one has really tried, or even been in a position to if they fell behind quickly to the conference's highest-scoring offense.
Obviously, Alabama is going to give the power game a go -- especially at ends Sergio Kindle and Sam Acho, who are known more as pass rushers -- and given what the Tide's irresistible force in the backfield did to Florida's previously immovable defense the last time out, it's hard to imagine Texas slamming the door hard enough soon enough to force McElroy to pick up much more slack than he's accustomed to.