Thursday, July 28, 2011

random thoughts: the Saban era and second-half letdowns

People associate Nick Saban, the football coach, with a number of different words. Like finish. And process. And discipline. And so forth.
In fact, Saban hits all those high points in his talk to football campers last month.

To be honest I wanted a reason to post that. "Hey coach ... um, can I go to the bathroom?"

To go back and watch many of the highlight videos early in the Saban era — particularly from the 2008 season, when the program began to really take its shape — one of the words you'll hear Coach throwing around repeatedly is identity. He wanted his players to take pride in crafting a reputation for themselves: a physically and mentally tough football team that kept coming and coming, until the other guy wilts. In truth, it's the identity Alabama fans have wanted for their team since the Bryant days: not the biggest, not the fastest and not the prettiest ... but always the team that won the fourth quarter.

Here's why I'm bringing this up: For a program that prides itself on finishing strong, Nick Saban's Alabama seems better when it starts fast, then hangs on at the end.
Don't believe me? Here are a few examples.

Alabama 41, Arkansas 38 (2007). Bama staked itself to a 21-0 first-quarter lead, and led 31-10 in the third, only to see Arkansas score 28 unanswered to lead 38-31 in the fourth. The Tide didn't go quietly, with a field goal and a defensive stop to set up this.

We were all so excited about the drive that won the game, the fact that we let a 21-point lead slip away was forgotten.
Alabama 30, Colorado 24 (2007 Independence Bowl). This time Bama led 27-0 in the second quarter, with the Buffaloes scoring twice before the half, then pretty much dominating the second half*. In fact, the only two things that saved us that night were a) an interception by Darren Mustin that set up a field goal, and b) a clock-killing drive that ate up the rest of the time.
* — Joe Posnanski-like footnote: Honesty compels me to report that the 2007 team really was not very good, particularly on defense, and the fact was that they needed to take those early leads to have a chance to win, since they sure as hell weren't going to beat anybody from behind..

Alabama 41, Georgia 30 (2008). Everyone remembers this game as the breakout for the program as a whole, particularly that beautiful bomb to Julio that made it 31-0 before halftime. Do you remember having to sweat out 17 unanswered from the Bulldogs, before two offensive drives put the game away?

You can excuse the last 2 TDs, since Alabama was playing the "we don't care and we're trying to run out the clock" coverage scheme. Still, the offense pretty much went limp in the second half.
Alabama 24, Ole Miss 20. One of the forgotten games of that season, a beautifully quirky thing that embodies everything you love about the Houston Nutt era: Alabama forced three turnovers, held Ole Miss on a fourth down attempt, built a 24-3 lead in the first half ... and nearly lost every bit of in the second half, with 2 turnovers and missed field goal. The Rebs were actually on Alabama's side of the field on their last drive, before running out of downs.

Alabama 37, Texas 21 (2010 BCS National Championship Game). Out of all the games on the list, this one mystifies me the most. Not only did Alabama lead 24-6 at halftime, not only did the No. 1 defense in the land play on our side ... Texas was missing its best player (Heisman finalist Colt McCoy, injured on the first drive). That game should've been in the bag. Instead, the Horns scored twice and locked down a sedentary Tide offense, and had the ball back poised to win the game.

OK, so it worked out.

Auburn 28, Alabama 27. We don't really need to go there again, do we?

Is there a common thread here? It's tempting to blame it all on defensive letdowns, or something mythical like "a loss of intensity" or something. There's another culprit, though. In Gregg Easterbrook's — usually insufferable — Tuesday Morning Quarterback column, he's fond of saying that offense starts comebacks, but defense sustains them. Alabama's troubles in these games started with a defensive letdown, but were exacerbated by the offense's inability to put a stamp on the game.
Compare the games above to the biggest win of the Saban era to date: the 2009 SEC Championship Game vs. Florida. Many pundits (erroneously) gave Saban and Kirby Smart all the credit for that game afterwards for "shutting down" Tim Tebow and the Florida offense. But Florida gained 335 yards of total offense that day, and its per-play average for the game was nearly 7 yards. The gaping differential in that game — and I'm not sure "gaping" is a strong enough term — was that Alabama's offense monopolized the football: 490 total yards (6.9 yards per play), 71 total plays (to Florida's 49) and nearly 40 minutes in time of possession. Specifically, in the second half, Alabama sustained drives of 2:48 (TD), 8:47 (TD), 2:09 (punt) and 6:51 (end of game). The Gator offense never sustained a comeback, simply, because Alabama did not give it a chance to do so.

I don't have a good answer for how this will play out in the 2011 campaign. This defense has the opportunity to be the best of the Saban tenure. But it will need an offense to sustain four quarters in big games, if a championship is to be won.

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