November 03, 2009
There's no "secret" to Alabama's success -- the Tide rank in the top five nationally in every major defensive category, are good for more than 200 yards per game on the ground behind the SEC's leading rusher and don't turn the ball over. That's the 'Bama blueprint from time immemorial, and they've hit all of those notes to various degrees in every game of their 8-0 start.
But what really made Alabama frightening over the first month of the season was its penchant for the long ball: At the end of September, alleged "game manager" Greg McElroy ranked among the country's top per-capita gunslingers, averaging more than 14 yards per completion and leading the SEC in efficiency thanks to his willingness to get the ball to a variety of receivers downfield, including 35 and 48-yard bombs in the win over Virginia Tech and strikes covering 32, 50 and 80 yards at Arkansas, only one of which was brought in by feted receiver Julio Jones. There were no really close calls in those first four games, even against the Hokies (34-24) and Razorbacks (35-7), and the Tide looked like the most well-rounded outfit in the country.
But if it seems like they've been a little more one-dimensional over the last four, it's not an illusion:
The lack of a credible downfield passing game was palpable in the close call at Tennessee, where 'Bama failed to score a touchdown and only two completions out of 18 went for more than 10 yards, with a long of nineteen. When Julio Jones is averaging as many yards per reception (7.7 on seven receptions vs. the Vols) as Greg McElroy is averaging on scrambles (7.3), there's a problem, and Nick Saban wants it fixed this week against LSU:
Saban has made it clear he wants his quarterback to quit focusing so much on "taking what the defense gives" and be more willing to take some chances and throw the ball downfield, even if it results in an incomplete pass or, worse, a turnover.
"It's a point of emphasis for us," Saban said last week. "We need to do it. Just because we don't have success doesn't mean it doesn't have an effect on the game. We used to play the Raiders when I was in pro ball. They'd have two fast guys. They were going to throw them the ball five or six times in a game and they were going to run deep down the field and you had to cover them.
But then that guy that's playing them, whether they catch it or not, it makes him play different all the other plays in the game. It's not just about the results sometimes. It's about how it affects everything else."
Oddly enough, the decline in the passing game hasn't affected Mark Ingram; quite the opposite, in fact, since Ingram has made his All-American bid by averaging 164 yards per game with virtually no air support over the last four, including the 246-yard show he put on against South Carolina, a game in which McElroy was intercepted twice and Jones didn't have a catch for the first time in his career. When the defense is in the midst of a three-game, eleven-quarter streak of holding opposing offenses out of the end zone, continuing to plug ahead with one of the best running backs in the country makes a lot of sense.
The fact remains, though, that Alabama has a total of two offensive touchdowns in its last three games, and Tennessee made it clear enough two weeks ago that a good defense willing to force McElroy to go underneath can limit Ingram (99 yards on 5.5 per carry vs. Tennessee) and generally grind the offense to a field goal-settling halt. LSU, despite its early defensive struggles, is a good defense: The Tigers' October included holding Georgia scoreless for the first three quarters of their win in Athens, holding Florida to a single touchdown, keeping Auburn out of the end zone until garbage time of a 31-10 rout and shutting out Tulane, 42-0. Like Tennessee, LSU's defensive front is too strong for 'Bama to expect to push them around consistently enough to put together long drives with Ingram and Trent Richardson between the tackles -- it will be on McElroy Saturday to loosen the Tigers up or risk extending the end zone drought, which could finally push the always-brittle undefeated season to its breaking point. When you're not scoring touchdowns, there's only so much the defense and field goal units can do.