In slightly more than 10 seasons of regularly attending Alabama football games, I've never been part of a more bizarre home atmosphere than what happened this past Saturday. I suppose that's what happens when two fan bases who aren't used to seeing one another every every year get together: the levels of vitriol are quieter than normal. I remember playing Oklahoma in '02-'03 — the two fan bases basically partied together for two days, game outcome be damned.
Still, even for a game of such magnitude, Saturday was a strange day. Spurred by Nick Saban's remarks earlier in the week, Tide fans didn't boo or jeer Penn State's players at any point during pregame warmups. And when they saw Joe Paterno for the first time ... I mean, wow. It was like everybody's grandfather had just emerged from the tunnel.
Moreover, Saban himself seemed jovial. At midfield, he met with Paterno, Mal Moore and Bobby Bowden — in town for the day for reasons that weren't entirely clear — to pose for the photo my wife expertly captured with her own awesome camera. He seemed relaxed. We all did.
A few minutes later, when the pre-game fly-over didn't accompany the end of the "Star-Spangled Banner" — instead showing up about five minutes too late — the strangeness of the day was cemented. It seemed like exactly the sort of atmosphere that might lead to a bizarre game — turnovers, penalties, you name it — and the end of the winning streak.
As it turned out, that didn't happen. Saban's team took care of business, just like always. They pounded out yardage on the ground, hit a couple of big plays through the air, forced a few turnovers and, when it seemed like we couldn't put the Nittany Lions away ... put together a drive that put them away.
Alabama 24, Penn State 3. And it was never really even in doubt.
In a way, I almost felt bad about the whole thing. We had some friends who came to the game with us who aren't Alabama fans; by the middle of the third quarter, they were probably bored stiff (they ended up disappearing midway through the fourth and hooking back up with us at the tailgate). But, as I tweeted right after the game, that's the Alabama way under Nick Saban: efficient, workmanlike ... and boring as hell.
Not that I'm complaining. As my friend Bart said yesterday, "I remember 'exciting' as an Alabama fan. I'll take this over that any day."
Some other thoughts ...
• Penn State's (apparent) defensive game plan continues to make very little sense two days later. The Nittany Lions lined up most of the first half in a 4-3 look, with a linebacker/hybrid shaded out of the box, apparently to stop the pass. Was this an open invitation to run the football? If it was, that's what they got: Trent Richardson gashed them repeatedly, and they didn't seem to make much of an adjustment. I don't get it.
• Greg McElroy's TD pass to Preston Dial may have been in direct response to my post in which I wondered about the ability of our tight ends. A great throw and catch.
• While we're on the subject of TD passes, I must confess, I'd never heard of Kevin Norwood (that is his name, right?) before Saturday. I will post his TD as penance.
• Jerry at WBE noted this today, but it's worth repeating: Alabama didn't exactly lock Penn State down offensively, as the score might have indicated. The Lions had three drives of 40-plus yards, only 'Bama turned them over four times, including Robert Lester's bizarre fumble return/fumble/fumble again sequence that resulted in a 97-yard loss for the offense.
The biggest issue for the defense: with Dareus out and Courtney Upshaw hobbling, the pass rush is next to non-existent; it's fashionable to complain about the secondary (particularly Kirkpatrick) but as we've seen in a recent years, a pass rush can make your secondary look way better than it actually is. Hopefully having 57 back on the field changes things a little.
• Also a concern: place-kicking. I know it hasn't been a problem yet, but ... I mean, does anyone feel remotely safe if we're in a situation where we need a field goal to put away a game? Anybody?
• I can't post this without attesting the unreal heat and humidity that came to Tuscaloosa Saturday; it hasn't been that muggy in a month. At around 3 p.m. I think it started raining, only everyone was already so soaked, they barely noticed.
(Funny story: two weeks ago I heard Musberger and Herbstreit talking about the humidity being a factor during the Va. Tech-Boise game ... and then they flashed the weather report on the screen and the humidity was 43 percent. Forty-three percent? It's 43 percent in my house on a daily basis! Who pays attention to 43 percent?)
• For reasons that aren't entirely clear, Alabama had Preston Gothard bring the game ball to midfield. Preston Gothard's main claim to fame is this ...
OK, so maybe it wasn't inexplicable.
• Finally, I feel the need to share this, if only because it encapsulates the rather bizarre nature of the day: at the halftime gun, Penn State's team hustled toward its locker room. Shuffling behind them, of course, was Paterno. Erin Andrews caught him for a brief interview in the end zone, meaning he and his escort now had to make their way to the locker room basically by themselves.
So as he starts to make his way to the exit, the Bryant-Denny cameras catch him; he's now in full display on all four screens. The fans start to cheer. They cheer louder. They keep cheering. Again, Paterno looks, walks and talks like everybody's favorite Italian grandpa; plus, he's a living legend.
Of course, he's pretending to ignore what's happening, instead walking with his head down pensively. Then, just as he's about to disappear from view, he looks up ... and acknowledges the cheers with a quick pump of his fist. The crowd erupts.
That's why it was worth paying the money for this game. Roll Tide, coach Paterno. See you at your place next year.