SEC Championship Game Review – Adieu Mizzou

When the clock hit 0:00 and hundreds of blue and yellow streamers descended from the ceiling, it occurred to me that this wonderful moment wasn’t really about Alabama beating Missouri or winning their unprecedented 24th SEC championship.  Instead, it was about the Alabama head coach who proudly grabbed the microphone away from Allie LaForce so that he could beam about his newest championship team.  And, Nick Saban should be immensely proud of this team because they are the result of the finest coaching job that he’s done in his many years of being a head football coach.

Teams are funny things.  Sometimes a team can be composed of a group of tremendously talented players – an embarrassment of riches that should honestly never lose a game.  Yet, that same team can fall short of every single goal they set out to achieve.  The 2010 Alabama football team had a treasure trove of exceptional football players.  Thirteen players from their two deep on defense are in the NFL today.  Twelve offensive players were drafted into the NFL, eleven of which are still in the league.  All told, 25 players off the two deep roster of this team made an opening day roster in the NFL…and yet this team finished with a very disappointing 10-3 record.  When everyone isn’t marching to the beat of the same drummer, teams can find themselves offbeat.

However, the pride and joy of Nick Saban’s 2014 team is its ability to work together and operate with one collective heartbeat.  You may recall that in February Saban mentioned to the leadership council the need to “get players to buy in” in 2014.  Brian Vogler quickly spoke up and said, “We need to get players to WANT to buy in.”  One simple word.  One simple message.  One simple thought can change an average group of players into one great team.  What Saban and his staff (and don’t underestimate the value of Kiffin here) set out to do in February, they saw come to fruition in December.  This game was less about overcoming the Tigers and more about overcoming the mindset that had led to disappointing defeats.  Mission accomplished.

Alabama on Offense

I apologize for getting this review out to you all in such a late fashion.  The beauty of having a blog is that there are no deadlines and there are no editors banging away at you for content.  Unfortunately, that’s also the detriment of the blog as writing can only flow when it’s given time to pour out and flourish.  Given the late date of this posting, this will probably not be one of those flourishing times but I hope to use the off time before the bowl, er, semi-final playoff game to post more pictures and diagrams of how the Tide was so successful in this game and during this season.  For now, please accept the abridged version of the game review and know that more is on the way…

  • Why were we in road whites again?   The #1 team in the country can’t wear their home crimson jerseys?  Blasphemous.  Ok, moving on….
  • Alabama won the toss and elected to score in 3:36. Loved it.  But, has Danielson seen us play?  We’ve used hurry up throughout the year and not because Auburn had some success against Missouri with it last year!
  • This game, more than any other, featured strong play action to one side to create flow only to see Alabama drag a player against that flow in the opposite direction for a big gainer. The game opened up with Jalston Fowler on a little play action boot and then saw Amari Cooper and Christion Jones catch passes as they ran behind the line of scrimmage against the flow of the play.
  • As we stated going into the game, Mizzou is perfectly comfortable in giving up short passes – hence the 12 catches for just 83 yards. Credit Kiffin for designing a play that would cause the safety to jump a Cooper crossing route, leaving DeAndrew White open for a 58 yard bomb.
  • I plan to diagram this later but there’s a reason safeties and corners often jump the wrong routes when they are in their zone concepts. Kiffin oftentimes will run patterns that are in direct lines with one another and the quarterback.  On the above play, Sims’ eyes appeared to take him to Cooper but White’s pattern was directly behind Cooper and within the same sight line.  Later, Sims found Jones in the seam when his eyes followed Cooper on the slant and then led him to the open white jersey behind Coop’s pattern.  This has happened time and time again but, put simply, the patterns lead Sims’ eyes to the next pattern in the progression so it’s impossible to read which receiver will get the ball.  I’ll diagram this and it will make more sense, I promise!
  • I will also diagram this for you guys but hopefully I can make it make a little sense right now. We talked about how aggressive the Mizzou defensive ends were and how Bama could take advantage of this.  They did.  Many times, they left the DE unblocked which allowed the Bama tackles (Shepherd and Robinson) to make their way out to the second level.  As the DE raced upfield, Alabama brought Brian Vogler or OJ Howard over to “trap block” them – this opened a huge running lane that was exploited time and time again.
  • On TJ Yeldon’s two touchdowns, I loved the fact that he didn’t pitter-patter his feet. Instead, he took the ball and hit the hole hard each time.  Loved seeing this out of Yeldon.
  • How about Blake Sims’ ability to hang in the pocket and deliver the ball, knowing he was going to get popped. The bomb to DeAndrew White was a thing of beauty and when Sims let it go, I think he knew he was going to get jacked.  He also hung in the pocket til the last instant on a throw down the outside seam to Jones and on a jump pass thrown to a crossing Cooper.  This was the first time I’ve really seen Sims wait inside the pocket and allow his progressions to work themselves free…
  • And once again, Kiffin raised his arms signaling a touchdown long before Sims launched the ball deep down the field to White. That’s so cool…
  • I think my favorite play was a new wrinkle that Kiffin came up with to get two massive lead blockers in front of Cooper. The play starts with Cooper motioning towards Sims, who is in the pistol look but with the addition of big Jalston Fowler to his left.  It’s kind of like an off-set I formation from the pistol.  At the snap, the ball is pitched forward to Coop and he allows 250 lb Fowler and 240 pound Henry to get out in front of him on what ends up being a student body left sweep.  Love getting the two big tanks out in front of the fleet-footed (but patient) Coop!
  • Once again, when the opponent closed within one score, Alabama answered on the very next drive. It’s uncanny how they are able to answer scores immediately.  Once Mizzou closed to within 21-13, Bama outgained them 225-65, and outscored the Tigers 21-0 the rest of the game.
  • I think there were a few “business decisions” late in the game that resulted in some Tiger defenders not getting in the way of big Derrick Henry. I need to diagram the touchdown that put Bama up 35-13.
  • It was fun to watch the offense early in the game as they turned the “Show Me” state into the “Fool Me” state. Kiffin trotted out four wide receivers and then would run the ball.  Then, he’d send in multiple tight ends and/or a fullback and would take to the air.  The Mizzou defense was off-balance all afternoon long.

Alabama on Defense

In the interests of time, I won’t spend a lot of space or effort breaking down the defense.  If you saw the game, then you know the defensive front six absolutely dominated the Missouri Tigers offensive line.  Sometimes the box score doesn’t tell the story but this time, it certainly does.  Missouri rushed 23 times for only 41 yards as Bama’s front line spent most of the afternoon in the Tigers’ backfield.  The only play that worked for the Mizzou offense was a backyard “go deep and I’ll run around and throw it as far as I can” kind of Hail Mary and, much to our dismay, this worked three different times.  Passes to Jimmie Hunt for 32, 63, 47 accounted for 142 of their 272 yards – that’s a staggering 52% of the offense!  And while that number certainly indicates how brutal those Hail Mary’s were, it also speaks to the otherwise inept offense that the Tigers had during the rest of the day.  Those three plays averaged 47 yards per play but the other 53 plays averaged just 2.41 yards per play.  Wow.  Here are a few things that stood out to me…

  • A’shawn Robinson had his most dominating performance of the season. Plagued by injuries early in the season, Mr Robinson owned the Georgia Dome neighborhood all day long.  He led the Crimson Tide with nine tackles, including three for a loss and was also credited with a hurry and at times would penetrate 3, 4 and 5 yards into the Missouri backfield.    The next three weeks should allow him to get even more healthy so Buckeyes beware.  And God help the pourous Oregon offensive line if Robinson gets to line up against that bunch.
  • Alabama continues to turn the opponent’s red zone into the dead zone. The Tigers reached the Dead Zone on three occasions but had to settle for just one touchdown and two field goals.  In today’s game of football, field goals are the equivalent to a punt so kudos to the Tide defense for standing strong once again.  FYI – amazingly, Alabama has given up ONE rushing touchdown in their last five games.
  • One Saturday it’s Eddie Jackson giving up big plays and then the next week it’s Geno Smith. Mizzou went after Smith with Hunt all afternoon long – targeting eight times with four completions for 111 yards.  Meanwhile, Jackson appeared to be targeted only four times, giving up two completions for 33 yards.
  • Bama’s front four were amazing. Not only did they destroy the running plays, they also flushed Mauk numerous times forcing throw aways and Hail Marys.  Dickson and Anderson were particularly good at applying pressure…
  • As Auburn did with Quan Bray, Missouri motioned a back out of the backfield out wide and he ended up being single covered by Reggie Ragland. If I were Ohio State, I’d attack this.
  • I thought Hunt pushed off on two of the three Hail Mary’s. One was blatant.
  • There was a beautiful defensive play that most folks probably missed. With the Tigers threatening on the Alabama 15, they faked a bubble screen and slipped Hunt down the sidelines to the end zone.  The hope was that Bama would bite on the screen but they didn’t – the Tide secondary played this perfectly, forcing a check down pass for one yard.
  • I thought DJ Pettway and Dalvin Tomlinson were very effective on the inside.
  • Alabama continued using just one linebacker as they often flanked Ragland out beyond the defensive ends. No one has been able to run on this look that they’ve been using since the Mississippi State game and that’s a credit to the front four.
  • I think on the touchdown, Bama’s secondary was supposed to be in combo coverage which switches on crossing routes. It appeared two of the three Tide defenders played combo while one (Geno Smith) played straight man and this allowed the pick play to work.
  • How about JK Scott getting that punt off after the low snap? Pretty smooth under pressure by the true freshman!
  • Since Mizzou was so inept at running the football, it was pretty interesting that they stuck with it even late in the ballgame. Show Me how to run down that clock, Mizzou!
  • During the broadcast, Gary Danielson mentioned how Oklahoma’s loss to Ok State actually hurt both Baylor and TCU. No one else mentioned that but he was so right.  Also, he correctly predicted FSU in the #3 spot.

Final Thoughts

How perfect was it that Blake Sims ended up getting the MVP trophy?  The kid who everyone questioned going into the season actually set a championship game record for completion percentage by completing 23 of 27 passes (85.2%).  That’s amazing to me.  And after Sims received his curtain call, it was easy to see how his teammates responded to him when Collins, Fowler, Ivory, Saban, Kiffin and others embraced the senior.  The Kiffin hug was particularly poignant as they shared a long embraced that seem to be a thank you both from coach to player and from player to coach.  What a moment…

And while Allie LaForce was on stage and accidentally proclaiming the Alabama Crimson Tide as “national” champions, Kiffin was over 50 yards away simply playing with three blonde little kids that clearly belonged to him.  Somehow I found this to be fascinating – the man who was as responsible as anyone for the team’s success was more interested in playing with his kids than he was basking in the glow of the spotlights.

But the thought that stayed with me long after we left the Georgia Dome was the sight of Bill Battle holding up the SEC Championship trophy with Nick Saban.  It was usually Mal Moore who got to share this special moment with Saban, and somehow you knew that Mal was upstairs smiling down on the successes for the coach and the AD that he selected to continue the Alabama tradition.

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W2W4 – The SEC Champion Edition

A few weeks ago, following Alabama’s loss to Ole Miss and then their narrow escape in Fayettville, not many people would have predicted that Alabama would be ranked #1 in the country and playing for yet another SEC Championship.  I’m not breaking any news here but this year has absolutely been Nick Saban’s best coaching job at Alabama to date.  He’s taken a former running back and turned him into a solid quarterback and in order to do that, Saban had to take make a reclamation project out of Lane Kiffin.  I’m not sure which odds were worse – Sims to perform at a high rate at quarterback or Lane Kiffin to direct a highly successful offense.  But, somehow and some way Saban has culled it all together to produce the nation’s best collegiate football team.

Across the field, almost as improbably, Gary Pinkel has the Missouri Tigers back in the SEC championship for the second year in a row.  Less than a Big 12 stalwart, somehow Missouri has easily navigated the SEC East going 14-2 in the SEC over the last two years.  That’s amazing.  Even more amazing is the fact that a 3-9 Indiana Hoosiers team beat Missouri earlier in the year.  Now, this same Tigers team is in Atlanta and is the last remaining hurdle to keep Alabama out of the playoffs.  We’re pressed for time so, after watching Missouri play A&M and Arkansas, here’s the best W2W4 we have time to cobble together before we head to the Georgia Dome…

Alabama on Offense

Here are a few tidbits that you’ll need to know about the Missouri Tigers when they are on defense.  First, they are extremely sound both in their run fits and in their coverages.  This is a well coached team that doesn’t allow the gaffes that we saw last week against the Auburn Tigers.  Also, they are athletic – they like to sit in a zone and allow their front four (especially their two defensive ends) to wreak havoc on the offensive line.  When you watch them play defense the best comparison I can give you is Ole Miss as they played a very, very similar style of defense (and you all know how that went).

Statistically, their defensive stats bear out exactly what I saw on tape.  Here are a few numbers that stood out to me:

  • #1 in the conference in getting sacks
  • #16 in the nation in total defense (Alabama is 11th)
  • #35 in the nation against the pass (Alabama is 54th)
  • #26 in the nation against the run (Alabama is #2)
  • #20 in the nation in turnover margin (Alabama is #72)

So, if you have seen them play or you’re good at math (or if you can just read this article), then you should realize that Alabama is going to have to earn each and every yard they get versus the Tigers.  Here are some other notes we gleaned from 8 hours of watching the Show Me bunch…

Tidebits

  • Mizzou plays a very sound 4-3 defense that utilizes zone pass coverage combined with speed rushing defensive ends. The  speed rushers can be encouraged/influenced upfield so draws, QB draws/runs and any runs to their vacated area should be available.
  • Their defensive front is small like Ole Miss’ so you’ll hear me screaming to run the @#$@#@ ball repeatedly.
  • And, we are now a pass first team so I fully expect to be frustrated throughout much of the game.
  • The windows to throw into their zone are much more open than the windows of the Ole Miss Bear Rebels with slants and square ins being available. Hunter Henry (TE for Arky) was open quite a bit but at this point mentioning OJ Howard is about as pointless as diagramming plays for Ozzie Newsome.
  • Wide receiver screens should be available.
  • The Tiger linebackers take deeeeeeeeeep drops so look for some underneath routes from the backs and, dare I say, tight end during the game. The short flats were wide open consistently.
  • The Mizzou LBs come up to stop the run with reckless abandon so play action should be effective if and only if we’ve established the threat of the run.
  • Shane Ray (#56) leads the conference in sacks and his best move is the outside/in move against the tackle. He arcs outside as if to speed rush but then knifes inside, beating the tackle easily.  He’s outstanding.
  • I’d concentrate my running plays between the tackles. With few exceptions, Missouri’s defense is able to get to the edges with numbers so the best attack would be to take them head on at the point of attack.
  • Missouri’s front four weighs: 260, 280, 295 and 245.  Ends Ray and Golden look like our linebackers.  This is why I’ll be begging Alabama to run the @#$@#$% ball!

Alabama on Defense

This matchup should be the difference in the game.  While Alabama has a fairly prolific offense, Missouri is downright anemic.  Here are some stats to marinate on as you get your popcorn ready for the game:

  • Missouri is 12th in the conference in total offense (11th in passing, 8th in rushing)
  • Against Florida, Missouri rushed for 99 yards and passed for 20. TWENTY!
  • Against Georgia, the Tigers rushed for 50 and passed for 97.

As you can see, when Mizzou has encountered a decent defense, they more than struggle.  Again, the Missouri Tigers offense will remind you of the Ole Miss offense where all of the runs are from the shotgun and all of them are designed to get to the outside of the defense.  Alabama has never, ever had any trouble in stuffing these types of runs.  I didn’t see a lot of push from the Tigers’ OL so I look for Bama’s front to dominate this matchup just as Florida, Georgia and, for the first half, Arkansas did.

Missouri does have a couple of outstanding wide receivers so if Maty Mauk can get the ball in the general area then they will be able to make plays vertically in the passing game.  However, the Bama safeties will not be concerned with the Tigers’ running game so their ability to help in the passing game will be sure to not allow Alabama to give up another 4 million yards of passing.  Here are some other notes…

Tidebits

  • Mauk is a 53% passer.   Good.  His short stature doesn’t allow him to see the field well so he blindly flings the ball around whether it makes sense or not.  In the two games I watched, I saw SEVEN batted balls (not his but, rather, the football) so keep an eye on that.
  • Mauk will check his first read and maybe his second one but, after that, he tucks and runs. He’s an adept runner so Bama may use a lot of the “mush rush” principals once again during this game.  However…
  • The Missouri right tackle is AWFUL! Against Arkansas alone he was beaten like a rented mule on six different occasions.  So, I’d like to see Bama put an edge rusher and let him play sic em around the Tigers’ right tackle.
  • There are two favored plays in the Missouri offense – the wide receiver screen (seen five times against Arky) and the swing pass to the running backs (seen five times). So, our linebackers are going to have to play well in coverage against their backs.
  • Speaking of their backs, their top running back (#32 Russel Hansbrough) was seen being carted off last week after suffering a severe ankle injury at the end of the game. Word is that he’ll play but he may not be 100%.  This is a major development.
  • Missouri loves throwing the quick slants to #21 Bud Sasser (6’3). Look for a Bama linebacker to get into the passing lane and make a play here.
  • Their deep threat receiver is #88 Jimmy Hunt and they will stretch the field with him at least three times during the game. Against Arkansas he dropped two balls before he finally hauled in a juggling catch for a big gainer.  He’s hit or miss but he could be a problem down the field.
  • Alabama will dominate in short yardage situations. Missouri’s line is athletic but they are not physically dominant at the point of attack – Arkansas pushed them back repeatedly.
  • Mauk runs the zone read with the backs but, frankly, I have no idea what he’s reading. I think the play is called and he just gives the perception of reading it b/c he consistently makes the wrong decisions here.
  • Look for Alabama to play press man to eliminate the quick, easy throws. The vast majority of the Tigers’ offense is predicated on quick, short throws and when those are taken away Mauk panics and makes very, very, very bad decisions.

Alabama on Special Teams

We hope the two weeks off have been good to Adam Griffith because after watching Conor Rayborn’s low kick get blocked it’s obvious that Griffith is our Obi Wan Kenobi – he’s our only hope.  Both Griffith and Baggett come into the game hitting a mere 67% of their kicks and Baggett has had a particularly rough patch recently.  I’ll say this is a draw but if Griffith is close to healthy then this is an edge for Bama.

JK Scott leads the world in punting so that will help the Tide flip the field consistently.  However, look out for the Missouri return game – they are ranked 2nd in the conference in kick off returns and 4th in the conference in punt returns.  As a good friend of mine pointed out, Alabama seems to be required to give up a huge return on special teams each and every time they play in the Georgia Dome so look out!

 

Conclusion

Before I sat down to watch Missouri, I assumed that Alabama would win this game by at least 20 points.  But, after watching them play Texas A&M and Arkansas, I can’t help but give much due respect to the Tigers’ defense because it is very, very impressive.  But, while their schemes remind me of Ole Miss, the Mizzou D simply is not quite as good on the back-end.  And offensively, the Tigers have put up some massive stinkers against the two decent defenses they’ve faced and they looked rather pedestrian against Arkansas, as well.

At the end of the day, you have to look at Missouri’s offensive failures against Florida and Georgia and understand that the Tigers’ offense should have even more difficulty moving the ball against the Crimson Tide.  Alabama’s physicality along both the offensive and defensive lines should eventually win the game but I think it will take a while before Alabama gets their footing offensively.

 

Final Score:  Alabama 27                Missouri 13

Anatomy of a Derrick Henry 25 Yard Touchdown Run

This was probably my favorite play of the game to break down.  Keep in mind that, at this point, Cam Robinson left the game due to a shoulder injury so Austin Shepherd (#79) was forced to move from right tackle to left tackle.  The footwork at left tackle is completely different than when you are on the right side so what Austin Shepherd did here was remarkable.

In the first slide, you can see the end zone look at Alabama’s formation and you can see how Auburn matched up against it.  Auburn’s Jonathan Mincy (#6) is responsible for containing the left edge and to do that, he’ll have to take on big Jalston Fowler.  Spoiler alert – Mincy will lose this battle.  Mincy is in the white jersey furthest to the left.

Henry Run

In this next slide, you can begin to see how this play is going to unfold.  Fowler will kick Mincy outside, creating the outside of Derrick Henry’s running lane.  Brandon Greene, playing the role of a 300 lb tight end, is assigned to the defensive end directly across from him and Greene does a lovely job of turning his man to the inside.  While Green performs his block, Austin Shepherd pulls around to lead Henry into the hole.

Henry Run 1

Here’s the sideline view of the play as it begins to take shape.  Notice that Shepherd is working his way around the block of Greene at the tight end position.  Mincy is in good shape here but Fowler will take care of that very soon.

Henry Run2

This is where things get fun.  At the bottom of the screen, Fowler has locked up on Mincy.  Shepherd (circled) has maneuvered around Greene’s block and has an angle on the Auburn linebacker who is in pursuit.  With the linebacker and safety coming up to attack the hole and Austin Shepherd, things look good here for Auburn to stop this play.  But, notice that Fowler and Greene have engaged in their blocks very, very well.  The only two Tigers who can stop this play are in the path of our converted right tackle…

Henry Run 6

Here, you can see the running lane that Henry used to score from 25 yards out.  Fowler is holding his block on Mincy and Shepherd takes out the two Auburn defenders in one fell swoop.  The result – TOUCHDOWN!

Derrick Henry Run7

This was a beautifully blocked play and was the final death knell to the Auburn Tigers.

Derrick Henry8

Auburn’s Goal Line Alignment Problems

In the W2W4, I mentioned Auburn’s goal line defense’s alignment issues against Georgia.  Thankfully, after a week of practice and film study, Auburn still didn’t get it right.  In the picture below, take a look at the number of down linemen from Ryan Kelly’s center position to the left side of the line.  There are FIVE bodies to left side of the line, four of which have their hands on the ground.  Now, look to the right.  There is one single solitary lineman with his hand on the ground and, not coincidentally, that’s where TJ Yeldon found the end zone.

Slide1

Numerically, running right was an easy win.  With Jalston Fowler providing the lead block, you essentially have a numbers advantage to the right side and with that inviting soft spot in the Auburn line, it was an easy touchdown.

The Epic 2014 Iron Bowl Review

Redemption. Webster’s tells us the definition of redemption is the act of making something better or more acceptable. Last year’s loss was unacceptable. This year’s win was a bit of redemption – but the victory was not the only redemption seen on Saturday night. No, there were several tremendous stories of turning the unacceptable into the acceptable.

First and foremost, there was Blake Sims. After spending five years trying to redeem his career as a quarterback, Sims quickly lost any gains he’d made this season when he threw three interceptions in little over a half of football. But, his redemption was obtained when he struck quickly for four straight touchdowns, turning a 33-21 deficit into an insurmountable 48-36 lead.  How he kept his chin up thru the early adversity I’ll never know.

Then there’s Bradley Sylve. He was last seen being booed off the field this season against West Virginia – replaced by a kid who was barely 4 months removed from having an ACL surgery. But, when Eddie Jackson faltered, it was Sylve who came to the rescue, thwarting several Tiger passes, including a key fade thrown to the corner of the end zone.  I admire him for staying the course and preparing for his next opportunity to shine.

With Alabama struggling to score touchdowns against Auburn last season, AJ McCarron finally found Amari Cooper in the end zone for a sure touchdown…but Cooper dropped it. It was a huge loss and an unacceptable drop for Coop  But this year, Cooper found redemption in the form of setting a new Iron Bowl record with 13 catches for 224 yards and three touchdowns. He was simply brilliant.

And what about DJ Pettway. Dismissed from the team and exiled to a junior college, only to return and play a pivotal role in stopping Auburn’s offense in the second half. His batted down pass resulted in perhaps the best redemption story of them all….

Nick Perry. The Prattville native was nearly the a goat of the 2012 LSU game, beaten unmercifully by LSU wide receivers time and time again. After that, he was little more than an afterthought in the Alabama secondary. But, in the last three SEC games against LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn, no Bama defensive back has played any better than he has. His pick was the defensive turning point in the game but he also was the one who made the fourth down tackle in the Alabama red zone when Auburn threatened late in the fourth quarter. At one time, Perry’s career was gone…but now he’ll not be forgotten.

And lastly, it must be said that the redemption of Lane Kiffin’s career is now complete. His game calling and his ability to navigate Blake Sims thru the pitfalls of the biggest game of his career will be legendary.   Once the scourge of an entire nation, he’s now the diamond on Nick Saban’s staff. What an amazing story he’s turned out to be.

The 2014 Redemption has certainly made the 2013 Kick Six loss seem to be at least a little more acceptable. This is a different team. It’s a different vibe that’s emanating from the sidelines and from the locker room. They bounce.  They have fun.  They love one another.  In the face of adversity, this team simply smiles and rallies around one another, picking a man up whenever he’s down. Whether it’s a TJ Yeldon fumble against LSU or three picks thrown by Blake Sims, this team finds a way to lift them up and carry them to victory, even when the odds are stacked against them. When West Virginia, Florida, Arkansas, Mississippi State and Tennessee closed to within one score, this team answered on the very next drive. Down 12 against Auburn, they scored touchdowns on FIVE consecutive drives. That’s the heart of a champion and that is the heart of this team. What. An. Amazing. Game.

Alabama on Offense

Going into the game, the Lighthouse tried to make it abundantly clear that Auburn’s defense was one of the worst ones in the conference. If you didn’t believe me before, perhaps you do now. But, credit Lane Kiffin, Blake Sims, Amari Cooper and TJ Yeldon for making the Tigers look even worse than they did coming into the game.

Under Lane Kiffin, Alabama has become a pass first offense and with a weapon like Amari Cooper, who could argue with that kind of game plan? But, it’s the way that Kiffin aligns Cooper that allows him to continually be wide ass open on most every play. And, the beauty of a true play caller is the ability to set up plays to be run in the future. After bending Cooper on a corner route, Kiffin can raise his hands and signal for a touchdown before Coop completes his fake of a corner route and heads to the goal post. Amari has routes against man and routes against zone and Kiffin is able to signal in which routes to run based on what coverage he’s seeing across the way. Multiple times this season Kiffin has raised his hands and celebrated long before the pass is even thrown. Amazing.

In this game, the only thing that stopped Alabama’s offense was Blake Sims, and Nick Saban nearly pulled the plug on the 5th year senior. Credit Saban and Kiffin for allowing Sims to have the latitude to find Stella’s Groove and somehow put Humpty Dumpty back together for the win. At 33-21, that simply didn’t seem possible.

On Broadway: Saturday night, Amari Cooper surely punched his ticket to the Downtown Athletic Club as there simply isn’t a better receiver (or perhaps player) in the country. It’s been our privilege to watch him over the last three years – no receiver has dominated games like Cooper has this season. Saturday, all of his routes and skills were on display: screens, curls, deep in routes, fly patterns, cop routes. Kiffin lined him up in the slot, out wide and in the backfield and he beat every player and every coverage assigned to him with fluid routes and sick speed.  There’s no one like him in college football.

Rebel Yeldon: After a sub-par game against the Auburn Tigers last year, TJ Yeldon put his stamp on the rivalry this year. Gone were the choppy, hesitant steps and in their place was a pair of hard charging authoritative legs. Whether he was busting over the goal line (against a woefully misaligned Auburn defensive front) or turning the corner on wide sweeps from the shotgun, Yeldon saved his best performance for his last Iron Bowl. 19 carries for 127 yards and 2 touchdowns surely broke the Aubies hearts since he was once a verbal commitment to the Tigers for a few weeks before he finally rolled with the Tide.

Mac the Knife: The murder ballad for the death of the Tigers was sung by the voice of Lane Kiffin and executed by the feet and hands of DeAndrew White. Facing a 4th &3 from the Auburn 42, Alabama desperately needed to keep pace with the Auburn offense. Down 33-21, Saban had to go for it and, out of over 150 plays, this one was clearly the key play of the entire game. And, on the key play of the game, you knew Bama would look to Cooper…but they didn’t. Instead, White motioned from his wide receiver spot into the backfield and the Tiger assigned to him in man to man raced past the center of the line, knowing White was going all the way across the line of scrimmage. Except he didn’t. White quickly stopped and as the ball was snapped he quickly flared out to the flat back from whence he came. White caught a perfectly led pass and got a lead block from Austin Shepherd for the key first down of the game. On the next play, Sims found Cooper on a cop route and the Tide and the crowd loudly announced to the Aubies they were back in the game!

Get Up, Stand Up: Mega props to the offensive line for dominating the line of scrimmage. They gave up only one sack and that was a result of Sims having to hold the ball because Raheem Falkins ran into Jalston Fowler, ruining both routes. Meanwhile, Bama backs averaged 6.7 yards per rush. That’s domination.

While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks: With Cam Robinson going down to injury, senior Austin Shepherd flipped from right tackle to left tackle late in the game. Please, please go back and watch the Derrick Henry touchdown run because it was a thing of beauty. Jalston Fowler led Henry around the end, kicking out the tiny little tigger corner who had the outer edge. The inside crease was created by massive TE Brandon Greene who turned the defensive end inward. But, that left an Auburn linebacker and safety who closed on the gap that Henry was hitting. Enter Austin Shepherd. The footwork for a right tackle is completely different than working on the left side but he was able to pull around the Greene block and he launched himself at the linebacker’s legs, taking him AND the safety out of the play. It. Was. AWESOME!

Don’t Call It a Comeback: Lastly, we close with Sims. What else can you say about a kid who has fought adversity since he came to the campus. His teammates have loved him and they have believed in him since spring training and now you know why. Most kids who would throw three interceptions when making their first start in the biggest rivalry in all sports would have caved in. Maybe they would have believed what the fans, the bulletin boards and the sportscasters said about them. Maybe they’d lower their head in shame. Not Blake Sims. He isn’t wired that way. What a comeback performance in the biggest game of his life. You want to be Blake Sims today. You’ve dreamed of being the guy who hit the game winning shot or smacked the game winning homer. This kid just won the wildest Iron Bowl game in history. Not bad for his first and only Iron Bowl game of his career.

Tidebits

  • Oh, Ellis. What were you doing at the goal line on 4th and 1? Five big Tiger linemen lined up from the center over to Alabama’s left tackle. Only one down lineman lined up to Bama’s right. They did the same thing against Georgia, too, with the same result – TOUCHDOWN.
  • The cop route that Cooper scored was the most awesome play I’ve seen simply because Kiffin raised his hand before Coop even made his first move. How amazing is it to know a play is a touchdown nearly as soon as you signal it in.
  • OJ Howard had his best blocking game of his career. That’s not saying much but he did provide the key block on Yeldon’s 25 yard gainer.
  • If you see Falkins in the game and motioning towards the line of scrimmage, keep your eyes on him. He crushed the defensive end a couple of times with some nasty crack back blocks.
  • I didn’t see any benefit in going for two to make it 42-36. None. Kick the extra point and it’s 41-36. Miss and it’s 40-36. Had AU scored a touchdown, a field goal would have only tied in that scenario whereas it would have provided a one point margin if you just kick the extra point. Glad it worked but it was absolutely not the right call, IMO.
  • As with every game, I thought we should have run the ball more, particularly right after Sims injured his ankle. On his first play post injury, he threw the first of his three picks.  It would have been better just to see if his injured ankle would even allow him to execute a handoff.
  • Speaking of, two of the three interceptions were just awful throws but on his last one Christion Jones actually quit on the route.
  • Loved seeing Fowler in the backfield next to Sims and Yeldon. That was a great new look and Fowler was a highly effective blocker from that formation.
  • After being undone by field goals last year, Alabama didn’t have to attempt a single one this year.  Not one.  This and Auburn’s failures in the red zone was clearly the difference in the game.
  • I’m an idiot. I screamed for Sims to run and he hit Jones on a 21 yard catch along the sidelines. I yelled for him to throw it away and instead he somehow found White at the back of the end zone for a touchdown. In Blake I should trust.
  • Speaking of Sims, he was on the opposite hash at the 19 when he ran towards the front pylon for his 11 yard touchdown run. That’s like a 50 yard run and yet he scored without being touched. Wow.
  • Credit Nick Saban for adapting to this style of game.  Who’d have thought Bama could allow Auburn to score 44 points and still come away with an 11 point win?

Alabama on Defense

Whoa Nelly. This ain’t yo momma’s Alabama defense. Hell, this ain’t 2012’s defense. Auburn racked up an obscene 628 yards of offense with Nick Marshall, a QB with ZERO 300 yard passing games coming into the game, throwing for a staggering 456. Four. Hundred. Fifty. Six. My God, what hath you wrought on my beloved game? We are the Crimson Tide. The bedrock of our foundation is that defense wins championships. Yet, there we were watching a Baylor-esque Big 12 shootout where defense was purely optional. Auburn’s 90 plays had the players and fans alike gasping for air. It was not our best day.

But, after all of that, Nick Saban and Kirby Smart are sleeping like babies while it’s Gus Malzahn who is lying awake at night thinking of what could have been. Five times the Tigers entered the red zone getting to the Bama 3, 7, 7, 3 and 16. Folks, that’s not the red zone, that’s the DEAD zone when you play against Auburn. The Tigers came in ranked as the #3 red zone offense in all of college football so it was unbelievable to stop them so close to the end zone! And that, my dears, was the story of the game. In a ridiculous game of basketball on grass that featured 1167 yards of total offense and 99 total points, it’s amazing to think that the defense could actually be the story of the game but it certainly was.

Red Zone Stop #1: Facing a 3rd & 1 at the Tide 10, Malzahn subbed in a four wide receiver set which forced Smart to counter with his smaller dime package. Malzahn felt he could attack the Bama front from the spread against the dime and he was right on this play as Artis-Payne picked up four decisive yards. Gus then kept his foot on the pedal, keeping Bama’s dime defense in the game which he thought was to his advantage. Only this time, the Tide blitzed Geno Smith and he and the Bama front stuffed the run for a gain of two. Uh oh. With 2nd & goal from the 4, Malzahn decided to sub his goal line package back in but then called a time out because he was undecided how to attack the Bama D. To me, this was a turning point in the game plan because the advantage Gus thought he had, he found was no advantage at all. From this point on, they seemed to go away from their original game plan in the red zone. Saban and Smart took away the Tigers strength and Malzahn had no answer. A toss sweep against the goal line jumbo defense failed miserably and an incomplete pass later the Tigers’ drive was thwarted.

Red Zone Stop #2: Facing 1st & goal from the 7, Auburn threw three straight incomplete passes before settling for their second field goal. This was totally uncharacteristic and completely over reactionary by Gus. Auburn was now going away from their bread and butter.

Red Zone Stop #3: Facing 3rd & 2 from the Bama 7, the Tigers hurried to the line of scrimmage to quickly run the zone read at Alabama. Smart and Saban once again called for a blitz off the corner and Geno Smith and Ryan Anderson combined to throw Artis-Payne for a loss of two. Now needing 4 yards, the Tigers were forced to kick their third field goal of the game.

Red Zone Stop #4: This one will be the one that keeps Gus up at night for the rest of his life. Auburn picked off Sims before the first half ended and they struck quickly by hitting Coates down at the Bama 2 yard line. When the catch was made there were 28 seconds remaining on the clock and Auburn even had one timeout remaining. Malzahn inexplicably chose to substitute players on and off the field, all the while with the clock ticking…and ticking…and ticking. When Marshall finally handed the ball off to Artis-Payne, there were only 10 seconds left on the clock. When the play was over, there were only 4 seconds left and Auburn was forced to call a time out to kick another field goal. The master of the hurry up managed to get off one single solitary snap in 28 seconds while holding onto a timeout. Credit big Jarren Reed for blowing up the run and tackling Payen for yet another 2 yard loss inside the 10.

Red Zone Stop #5: Facing a favorable 2nd & 2 at the Bama 13, Auburn once again ran the zone read at Alabama and, once again, Artis-Payne was thrown for a loss. This time Trey DePriest blitzed off the edge and came free unblocked while DJ Pettway helped engulf Payne for a three yard loss. An incomplete fade on 3rd & 5 left Auburn with yet another field goal, their fifth of the game.

Red Zone Stop #6: Most folks forget this but with seven minutes to go in the game, Auburn was facing 4th & 8 at the Alabama 14. Marshall connected with Marcus Davis but Nick Perry came up in the Nick of time, stopping Davis short of the first down.  And there you have it – six red zone flat tires for the Gus Bus.

The Reflex: Alabama was completely and utterly (cow college – get it?) destroyed on the ground by the Tigers last season, giving up 296 yards of offense on the ground. The Tide’s inability to stop the zone read resulted in the game tying touchdown, as well. This year was totally different and Bama’s ability to stuff the zone read ruined the Tigers’ ability to score in the red zone. Bama blitzed linebackers and safeties with reckless abandon, stuffing the run for three yards or less 26 out of 47 running plays – 12 of which went for no gain or a loss! That’s staggering, especially compared to last year!

Sylve Linings Playbook: Bradley Sylve was booed off the Georgia Dome turf after repeatedly getting toasted by West Virginia wide receivers. But, Sylve found his redemption when he replaced the man who replaced him in the first game of the season and he played perhaps the best man to man coverage this side of Cyrus Jones. I can’t tell you how impressed I was to see this young kid get shoved out onto the brightest stage under the white hot lights and yet he found a way to not only survive but thrive. Mike Pereira of FOX said after the game that Sylve should have been awarded an interception on the simultaneous catch he had with Bray. The rule book clearly states if simultaneous possession is established in the air, then the first person to land in bounds is to be awarded possession – that person was Sylve.

Blew By-You: On the first Coates touchdown, Eddie Jackson inexplicably paused while running with Coates and that hesitation resulted in a touchdown. On the bomb to Coates before the half, Jackson was in man with a single high safety and was once again peeking into the backfield instead of turning and running. This time, he was burned like a naked Irishman in the Caribbean. Ouch.

Stop in the Name of Love: After Marshall threw the pick to Perry, the next drive ended in a sack at the hands of Xzavier Dickson. But, if you watch closely, the play is made by Reggie Ragland, who lined up at defensive end. At the snap, Ragland arced around the outside, trying to beat the Aubie tackle off the edge. But, when Ragland realized he’d gone past Marshall (the cardinal sin of pass rushing against running quarterbacks), he stopped his rush and spun back to the inside. Marshall saw Ragland go outside and thought he had a running lane but when he took off, Ragland had recovered and forced him back into the pocket and into the waiting arms of Dickson.

Tidebits

  • I thought Rashaan Evans was a difference maker. His initial pressure flushed Marshall and led to him throwing the pick to Perry. Evans disrupted the pocket nearly every single time he was out there.  Would love to see more of #32.
  • Auburn opened the game by going away from their known tendencies out of the zone read. Instead of the usual handoffs, they influenced in one direction and then brought Artis-Payne back against the grain. The Tigers used this to pile up 128 yards of rushing in the first half but Bama adjusted afterward, holding Auburn to only 44 yards rushing in the second half.
  • The Tide also finally adjusted by not blitzing Marshall and leaving their corners to be fed to the Tigers. Bama just rushed four when Marshall threw the pick to Perry and then rushed four once again when they sacked him to stop the very next drive.
  • I find it fairly incredible that out of 47 throws they challenged Cyrus Jones maybe three times total. My how his status has changed.
  • I LOVED the fact that this year Saban/Smart blitzed the Auburn zone reads and dictated the reads to Marshall.  Last year, Alabama sat on their heels far too much but this year they did what Kansas State, Georgia, Mississippi State and others did to the vaunted zone read – blitzed the piss out of it.
  • I’ll be very glad to see Coates and Williams go pro.  Say what you will but they are exceptional wide receivers.

Alabama on Special Teams

Just a couple of quickie notes on special teams where I felt Alabama dominated field position throughout the game.

  • After receiving applause for simply catching a punt earlier this season, Christion Jones quietly had his best game of the season with a 37 yard kickoff return and a 29 yard punt return.
  • JK Scott had a 70 yard punt that flipped field position completely and his other punt was downed at the Auburn 15. He netted 55.5 yards per punt.
  • I thought the kickoffs from Scott were outstanding, as well.
  • The one concern was the use of Gunnar Raborn for the place kicking duties. We’ve mentioned that Adam Griffith has been battling an injury for weeks but after a week off against Western Carolina I thought he’d be ready to go. Clearly he was not. After Raborn’s low extra point kick was blocked, Griffith was summoned for the final two extra points. Hopefully he will not be needed this week against Mizzou – then he’ll have about a month to heal.

Final Thoughts

Folks, at halftime the entire stadium felt this team was in dire straights and then things got even worse after Sims’ interception on the first series of the second half. Bama seemingly had no answer for Auburn’s offense and Blake Sims was shrinking from the brightest lights of any game he’s ever played in. But, as this team has done so many times this season, they rallied around one another – staring down adversity and kicking it in the shorts.

Belief is a very strong thing and it’s a necessary ingredient in every championship team. Belief in your coaches. Belief in the game plan. Belief in the man standing next to you. And belief in yourself. I told you guys after the Florida game that this team had a very special character and they’ve shown this time and time again this season. Somehow it was easy to forget about this at halftime but oh how this team reminded us in the second half that they are a very, very special group of men. If you weren’t convinced of this before, you should be now.  Gone is the Kick Six.  It’s been replaced by the Dead Zone in the Red Zone.  Kick Five, Gus.  But for Bama, T-town stands for Touchdowns.