January 20, 2009
Occasional X-in' and O-in' on big plays, big games and other relevant oddities. Hopefully this will become a recurring offseason feature.
Here's Alabama center and captain Antoine Caldwell, No. 59, at the Sugar Bowl coin toss, politely informing Utah captain Stevenson Sylvester of his plans for the rest of the evening:
Yeah, not so much, actually, though Antoine's homicidal threat seemed sincere. Instead, in the first quarter alone of Utah's upset, the Utes sacked John Parker Wilson three times, intercepted him once more and forced three false starts by the Crimson Tide, all by an unusual combination of synchronized pre-snap shifts and well-disguised zone blitzing. By the time Bama got its head around the opening barrage, the Tide were down 21-0 and Utah was warming up its poll-shaming victory lap.
We're going to look at two examples of big plays by the Utah defense that, if they didn't exactly change the course of the game, certainly accelerated it. The first is Robert Johnson's interception on Alabama's second possession, with Utah already leading 7-0, that turned the snowball of the Utes' quick-strike touchdown into an avalanche.
At the snap, Alabama -- in a three-wide set on second and long -- is facing a generic nickel set, with a four-man rush, apparent press man coverage over the slot receiver and safeties playing two-deep over the top:
At the snap, though, Utah's front four shifts to the strong side, so the left guard, center (Caldwell, a veteran All-SEC performer in his own right) and right guard all have rushers crossing their face from left to right. Meanwhile, the Utes are going to overload the weak (left) side of the line -- where All-American Andre Smith would usually be lined up at left tackle -- with blitzes from both the nickel back, who was showing man coverage before the snap, and linebacker Stevenson Sylvester, who'll attack behind the slant by end Paul Kruger (labeled here as No. 4):
As expected, Alabama's linemen all bite on the slant to the strong side, while left tackle Mike Johnson reacts to the nickel blitz off the corner, opening up a clear rushing lane for Sylvester. In a perfect world (say, if Smith was in the lineup), the left tackle would crash down on Sylvester's blitz up the middle and force the nickel back to come from farther away to get to the quarterback; but as long as the guard and center are influenced by the strong slant, one or the other must come free on the weak side -- All-American or not, the left tackle is outnumbered. On the other side, end Koa Misi backs off of the rush and squats in coverage. Wilson has two players, tailback Mark Ingram (who initially draws Misi's attention) and tight end Nick Walker, releasing away from the blitz. Initially, Wilson's quick read is Walker as he moves into the middle of the field, vacated by Stevenson's blitz:
Wilson has to get rid of the ball quickly because he recognizes Sylvester is flying in unblocked. As he starts to release the throw to Walker, though, he spots Misi moving into the throwing lane ...
... and reflexively forces the ball high to avoid the interception underneath. It turns into an awful-looking pick over the top instead. Johnson gets the credit for having the ball thrown directly into his arms, but he's barely moved since the snap -- the turnover is wholly the result of pressure by Utah and confusion by Alabama:
Alabama got a very similar look in the fourth quarter, now facing a must-throw situation from 11 points behind, and the Utes again showing a four-man rush (Sylvester, No. 4, is positioned as a stand-up end) and press coverage by an inside defensive back, Sean Smith:
Again, the apparent man coverage becomes a blitz to Wilson's blind side -- though this time, Alabama should be fine with Ingram staying in to pick up the rush:
As Misi's upfield rush forces Wilson to step up in the pocket, seemingly well-protected, Ingram moves up as if to meet Smith's blitz ...
... and completely whiffs, apparently having missed the blitz altogether:
The result is an easy blindside sack 'n strip for Smith:
... and a recovery for Sylvester inside the Bama 30, from whence the Utes added the icing field goal with far too little time for a Tide comeback:
And the crowd, of course, went wild:
These are possibly the two biggest plays of the game, turnovers that led directly to a pair of Utah scores -- 10 of the 14 points that separated the teams in a 31-17 final -- and both were caused by Utah coming from places Alabama didn't expect. I find it hard to believe Andre Smith's presence would have accounted for much in either play, because the left tackle is not beaten on either play. Instead, the credit goes to Utah for imagining and implementing a plan that left the entire Tide line (and subsequently, the beleaguered backfield) grasping at straws for most of the night.