Sunday, October 11, 2009

Week 6 thoughts: that old familiar feeling

Alabama fans like me know the Bryant days are long gone.
Forget about the houndstooth baseball caps (trendy) and the creepy guy with coach Bryant tattooed to his back (trashy). Nobody expects to return to dominance the way our parents witnessed it. Those numbers, as we've documented in this space previously, were ridiculous. Nobody's going to dominate this conference the way Alabama did back then. We know that. We can live with it.
No, what Alabama fans like me want is a return to the days of Gene Stallings.
Very few people mention those anymore. Many of Stallings' seasons were viewed as somewhat disappointing, if only because the SEC wasn't exactly our personal playtoy — a different coach, one who was busy revolutionizing college football as we know it, was running things at that point. Further, Stallings' teams were never what you'd call "dominant" — many a day ended with my dad and I turning off the television (or the radio) after a mundane victory over the likes of Mississippi St. or Vanderbilt, one in which we'd hung on because of a blocked punt or a late interception, and the outcome was never really in doubt but it wasn't the kind of blowout we really needed (usually in the 24-6 variety).
Forgotten in the history of Alabama football, however, the Stallings era was a really good period for Alabama football: 70 wins, a national championship, an SEC crown and four division championships (every season in which they were eligible, and that's not counting the 1991 season, when no such divisions existed). The Alabama teams coached by Gene Stallings were always, always physical on defense, sound in the kicking game and completely dull on offense. Like watching paint dry, really. In fact, you could call him, along with the Tom Osborne/Frank Solich programs at Nebraska the last vestiges of winning football "the old-fashioned way."

(UPDATE: Apropos of nothing, I posted a video of Gene Stallings' last game, which is kind of emblematic for how to win the Bebes way.)

I thought about the Stallings era on Saturday night, sipping Sweetwater 420 and watchinghighlights of Saturday's systematic dismantling of Ole Miss, which ended 22-3 and was never really even that close. Just like during the Stallings era, Alabama went on the road to face an upstart SEC opponent in its building. Like the old days, it was on national TV with a ton of pregame (not to mention preseason) hype.
And, just like the old days, Alabama took them apart. Force a few turnovers. Block a punt. Kick a few field goals. Ho hum.

Look, I'm not here to tell you this game was a work of art. It's frustrating and at times infuriating to watch a football team that can't close in the red zone, and allows a clearly outmatched opponent to hang around ... and hang around ... and hang around, even when it's obvious they have about as much chance of winning as Groveton did in that game against the Titans where they broke Rev's arm.
But here's the other half of that coin: Ole Miss never had a chance. Alabama's defense squeezed the life out of them the way a python slowly kills its prey, Ole Miss defensed our boys as well as anyone has all season, and ... well, I'll let Dr. Saturday say it:
Still, the Tide cruised to another routine thumper against an overmatched upstart, an appropriate reminder that this team is still first and foremost about a) Smothering defense that always seems to be in the right place, and arrives with menace; and b) Wearing defenses down with a solid, consistent ground game featuring a couple Brinks trucks in the backfield. You could add "making field goals" -- Leigh Tiffin was 5-of-5 when the offense stalled in Rebel territory -- but the blueprint would have been sufficient today even he'd missed all five. Per its head coach, this team is a cold, consistent, mercenary machine on all fronts.

We've said it before, but this is the way Nick Saban's football teams operate. They don't blow assignments. They rarely miss tackles. They don't turn the ball over. They will make you beat them.
Is it the most entertaining brand of football on the planet? Frankly, if you're a casual fan, it's downright boring.
Having said that, it's also the brand of football played by the No. 2 team in the country right now. So I'd say it's working.

Some other scattered thoughts from Saturday ...
— I've no idea why, only a few days after grousing about his duty to find the open man, Greg McElroy seemed to be pressing so hard to force the football to Julio Jones on Saturday in Oxford. On at least four different occasions, McElroy threw the ball to Jones in spite of double (and on one occasion, triple) coverage — the most scathing indictment came from Steve Beuerlein (who acquitted himself in the booth pretty well, considering they made him work with Craig Bolerjack), who pointed out that McElroy forced a pass to Jones in the end zone in the midst of three red jerseys, despite the fact that Preston Dial was running free down the middle of the field, with no one within five yards of him. Saturday was the first time since the first half against Va. Tech that he looked like a rookie starter.
— If the last two weeks haven't taught our people something about this stupid "FIRST DOWN" business, I don't know what will. Both Kentucky and Ole Miss celebrated every first down like they'd just won the BCS title, and what's worse, their fans are apparently OK with it.
To everybody who participates in that garbage, both past and present, I hope you're properly ashamed.
— Alabama's repeated stripping of Ole Miss ballcarriers on Saturday is an illustration of why coaching and desire matter in football. On the coaching front, read this fantastic post from Smart Football about Nick Saban's pass-defense philosophy. But the other half of it, of course, is desire: Alabama guys were able to steal the ball away from Ole Miss' guys because (and I hate coaching cliches like these, but here goes) they simply wanted it more. There was a play like this one in an AFC Championship Game between New England and Indianapolis several years ago — recounted here by Bill Simmons — in which the Pats' Tedy Bruschi, a marginal talent (as NFL linebackers go) who had battled back from a stroke that same year, stole the ball from Indy's Dominic Rhodes. In an NFL Films retrospective of the game, you can see Bruschi bringing the ball back to the sidelines with him and shouting, "They don't got it!"
Let there be no doubt: Bruschi had it. And so does this Alabama team.
— I know, I know, I know. It's fashionable to rip on Leigh Tiffin. He's got a sour face and has been kind of erratic in the past and Daniel Maguire once called him "a great big (expletive)" in a text message he sent me. Still, he went 5-5 yesterday, which means he's (wait for it) 14-16 for the season.
You read that correctly: 14-16. He's missed two field goals this year. Two.
For some reason, this still isn't good enough for our fans.
— Not good enough for me: we nearly gave up another TD on a kickoff return yesterday. I swear, this is going to cause me to have an aneurysm at some point.
(Note: There's nothing funny about aneurysms. Probably.)
— Since I went after McElroy earlier, now seems like a good time to mention he hasn't thrown an interception since he took a hit on his arm in Week 1 against Va. Tech. And I promise I knocked on some wood after I typed that.
— I'm not positive about this — because we threw a party yesterday and I was pretty tired at 11
p.m. — but I think I saw one of the ESPN graphics listing Mark Ingram as a "Heisman hopeful." Frankly, I'm not interested. We don't win Heismans in Tuscaloosa. And we don't cheer like idiots over first downs.
(Just in case you weren't sure.)
— I'll cede this final point to Chris Low, even if I'm almost certain he's trying some kind of voodoo hex on us:
Granted, there’s still a lot of football left to be played. But a second straight No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup in the SEC Championship Game doesn’t seem that far away.

Roll Tide.

1 comment:

-D. said...

Hey, I didn't use an expletive in that text message--just an anatomical term. (I blame OTS for getting me riled up about Tiffin.)