There are wins and then there are huge wins. At the University of Alabama, Nick Saban’s teams have created a wrecking ball of a team that is rarely cheered for its bullying of undermanned and underwhelming teams. I mean, who applauds the chainsaw for taking down another tree? That’s what it’s supposed to do. And, at Alabama, the Crimson Tide is supposed to win and win easily.
To hear some Bama fans, you’d think we lost on Saturday by their bemoaning of the defense. Well, anyone who is disappointed in the Tide’s efforts on Saturday clearly wasn’t at the stadium to feel the sweltering heat and to hear the loudest roar of a crowd I’ve ever heard. I’ve been to 13 of the 14 SEC stadiums and I’ve been to four national championship games. This was the loudest stadium I’ve heard. When the Tide was down 14 in the early moments of the first quarter, the crowd noise was absolutely deafening. What???? DEAFENING! For the first time ever the Aggies moved their yearly “First Yell” to the third game of the season. Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen and Emmylou Harris were the opening acts of Midnight Yell practice and what followed was the largest Midnight Yell in recorded history. The Aggies were more than amped for their mega-showdown against Alabama.
So, here were the giddy Aggies – up 14 points in a first quarter that featured their beloved Heisman trophy winner being an unstoppable force while Alabama’s vaunted defense played the role of a very movable object. The only thing hotter than the intense, sweltering Texas heat was Manziel and the Aggies offense. Tide fans and the Alabama defense surely felt the life being sucked out of them by a “here we go again” vacuum that seemed, unlike the Tide’s pass rush, inescapable.
But at Alabama, we don’t play football – we live it. While A&M was experiencing so many firsts – the first time First Yell was on the third game, their largest Yell Practice and their first time being on such a massive national stage – Alabama had been there. They had done that. Just last year against LSU and Georgia, Alabama proved that it’s not the first punch that counts – it’s the last one. And on Saturday, after withstanding a flurry of staggering blows in the beginning and the end of the game, Alabama and AJ McCarron withstood the Texas heat and the legend of Johnny Football and they won a terrific football game that will be talked about for ages.
No matter how you want to look at Saturday’s epic battle, in the end Alabama walked away with a critical road win in a situation where most teams would have collapsed. Instead, Alabama manned up and asserted themselves in big time fashion. That’s the power of Alabama (and you can just ask the Aggies’ defensive front seven about how powerful that can be).
Alabama on Offense
At Alabama, talented fifth-year seniors are extremely hard to come by. Usually by the time a highly acclaimed athlete reaches the conclusion of his third year, the next year Bama fans get to see him play on Sundays instead of Saturdays. But, for whatever reason fifth-year senior AJ McCarron doesn’t get the publicity or the buzz that a Johnny Manziel or a Teddy Bridgewater gets and to me that’s a shame. Saturday may have been AJ’s finest moment as an Alabama quarterback and somehow his performance is getting lost on the shuffle of the Manziel talk or in the hand wringing about the Alabama defense. But, know this: AJ was spectacular on Saturday and he elevated his Sunday stock to an all-time high.
Oh Captain, My Captain: Against the Aggies, McCarron was asked to do a number of things that the NFL GMs covet. Without the benefit of a huddle throughout much of the first half, AJ stood at the line of scrimmage and barked out the signals for each offensive play. He had the latitude to adjust the play from a run to a pass and vice versa and he had to communicate this out to his lineman and receivers under the loudest crowd noise I’ve been ever heard. On this day, McCarron was the de facto offensive coordinator. McCarron and the Tide offense worked without a huddle with the idea to force A&M to line up and declare their fronts and their blitzes (because the LOVE to shift and move around pre-snap). So Alabama went no huddle but, at the same time, they milked the clock down under 10 seconds so as to keep the football away from Manziel for as long as possible. And, while there were a few (4) false starts and an illegal formation, there were ZERO delay of games. Amazing. With all of these responsibilities, McCarron had his finest day as a passer, completing 20 of 29 for 334 yards and four touchdowns. Oh, and, by gaining 568 yards in total offense, it appears AJ had a pretty good day as a play caller, as well!
Where’s the Beef: After watching Bama’s offensive line play, well, offensive against Virginia Tech (and that includes the woeful blocking from the TEs and the H-Backs), I have to admit that I wasn’t convinced the two weeks of prep time between the Va Tech game and the A&M game would be enough time to do any good. I was wrong. Totally wrong. There were so many fun things to watch on Saturday but the absolute key to the game was the line’s ability to block much, much better than they did against the Hokies. Mission accomplished. The insertion of Brandon Greene as a 6’5, 307 pound tight end created the answer to the Michael Williams dilemma, and what a big time answer he proved to be. With Alabama playing with essentially a third tackle during much of the second half, the Tide put the undersized Aggies on skates and rolled them around Kyle Field at will. A&M didn’t have any answers for the beef that Alabama was slinging at them and this allowed Bama to milk the clock and roll up points all at the same time.
Tighty Righty: We’ve been looking for some real tight end play this season and, after watching the tape, OJ Howard, Brian Vogler and Brandon Greene were all very real and very spectacular, each in their own way. We talked about Greene above and he was exceptional on the run plays and in providing pass protection. Vaunted five-star tight end OJ Howard had a coming out party with three catches for 68 yards, including the most critical play of the game (more on this later). Vogler contributed three catches for 24 yards and, similarly to the Georgia game last year, was a force in the blocking game. Five of the six completions to the tight ends went for first downs. Alabama played with two and three tight ends throughout much of the second half and they were all exceptional.
(Not) N Sync: Six of McCarron’s nine incompletions were thrown to Amari Cooper. For the second straight game these two have not appeared to be in sync.
Lean on Me: Did you notice when Alabama was down 14 points they leaned on McCarron to get them back into the game? After only two runs and 14 passes, Alabama had reclaimed the lead 21-14.
Beauty of the Beast: For those that have followed along with this blog over the last two years, you know I love me some Nudie Fowler and have affectionately (insert man crush here) called him The Beast throughout this blog. Saturday was a coming out party for him as a blocker and as a receiver and it was apropos that he was on the receiving end of the game winning touchdown. Fowler was atrocious (and, yes, that hurts me to say but it is what it is) against the Hokies but he was magnificent against the Aggies. He punished the little A&M front with runs of 15, 9, 5 and 8 yards and he blocked them with the same ease as he ran over them with. Kid can catch, too, so it was nice to hear AJ had the confidence to call on The Beast for the game winner!
Convoy: In the Virginia Tech game, Alabama pulled their guards only three times during the entire game. In the past, you may recall visions of Chance Warmack pulling from his guard position and laying waste to defenders who dared to step into his path. Pulling beastly guards has been a staple of the Tide rushing attack since Saban got there. In the second half, with Alabama needing to bleed the clock while they continued to score, Doug Nussmeier unveiled the newest wrinkle in the Bama running game. Behold…
Above, Alabama is in the Pistol formation. Yeldon will run the ball to his left while following the pulling blocks of Arie Kouandjio and Ryan Kelly. It’s unusual to have a center who can snap the ball accurately AND be able to beat the running back to the edge in order to block for him. Kelly & company began pulling at this point in the game and they pulled with devastating effect throughout the rest of the half. Also in the second half, the Tide inserted big tight end Brandon Greene just for giggles. He’s massive.
Above, you can see Arie Kouandjio (77) and Kelly (70) leading Yeldon to the corner. 6’5, 307 lb tight end Brandon Greene is blocking down, as is Cyrus Kouandjio, and these two blocks eliminate the pursuit from the line. At first, there is no one for Kouandjio or Kelly to block!
With Kevin Norwood sealing the cornerback at the top of the screen, there’s a huge alley for Yeldon to run through. Here, Kelly and Kouandjio finally found some poor soul to block and their double team made sure Yeldon was able to scoot through for a big gainer. Two plays later, they ran the same play and A&M never showed any ability to stop it. Kelly’s ability to pull from his center position will be a huge weapon going forward…
I Will Find the Center In You: Tool sings “I will find the center in you, I will chew it up and leave” – on Saturday, the tool, if you will, was McCarron and he simply chewed up the middle of the Aggie defense. Our pregame film study indicted A&M typically left the middle of their defense open and Bama capitalized on this by hitting DeAndrew White, Vogler and Howard on wide open crossing routes and seam routes in the center of the field. When Texas A&M cut the lead to seven, Alabama faced a critical second and 15 from the Aggies 46. Momentum had shifted and with Alabama in second and long, Kyle Field was rocking from side to side. Once again, McCarron dialed up a seam route to OJ Howard and the result was a 26 yard first down catch which led to another Bama touchdown. The middle of the field was available and McCarron & company took advantage of it all day long.
Kenny and the Jets: It’s got to be pretty sweet for a QB to have receivers like Kenny Bell and DeAndrew White because both of them have game changing speed. Bell took a simple hitch route and turned a gorgeous block by Bama’s Swiss Army Knife, Christion Jones, into a 51 yard vapor trail. Later, on the Tide’s favorite trick play, Fowler tossed a hand off back to McCarron who floated a beautiful spiral into the waiting arms of White for a 44 yard touchdown. The replays showed White turned an easy jog into a Usain Bolt-like sprint faster than an Aggie defender can say “UH OH!”
Going into the game, we knew the onus would be on the offensive line to generate a push, protect the quarterback and win the time of possession battle. The result? 234 rushing yards, 334 passing yards and 10 extra (and much-needed) time of possession minutes for the offense. We knew the Aggies would score (but had no idea it would score 42 points and roll up 628 yards of offense!) but the question was whether or not Bama’s offensive line could generate enough points to score with them. The answer to that question was a resounding YES!
In the first half, Alabama got back into the game by leaning on AJ McCarron and the passing game but in the second half the Tide put in “tight end” Brandon Greene and pounded the ever-loving life out of the Aggies. Were it not for a TJ Yeldon fumble, Alabama would have won the game by two touchdowns and would have covered the spread. Instead, they hung on for dear life with AJ McCarron making clutch play after clutch play.
Before the season started, Bama fans like me couldn’t wait to see the all of these offensive weapons on full display and on Saturday we got to see a helluva weapons demonstration. Tide fans who were wringing their hands about the poor offensive execution against Tech are now ecstatic over the new-found offensive glory. Perhaps the same will be said of the defense when they aren’t facing Johnny Manziel on upcoming Saturdays.
Tune in tomorrow as we’ll break down the Tide’s defensive struggles against the Aggies. So much to cover, so little time…