Medley: Alabama gets away from run, Aggies run off enough ‘Johnny Football’
by Joe Medley
jmedley@annistonstar.com
Nov 11, 2012 | 5345 views |  0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Texas A&M defenders celebrate after a fumble by Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon in last season's matchup. (Photo by Bill Wilson)
Texas A&M defenders celebrate after a fumble by Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon in last season's matchup. (Photo by Bill Wilson)
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TUSCALOOSA — The Nick Saban statue outside of Bryant-Denny Stadium rarely stands alone. Alabama fans love to pose for pictures around his clapping likeness, which the Alabama football coach earned with two national titles.

That statue got little more than passers-by and long, mumbling-accentuated scowls Saturday night, and deservedly so, after the top-ranked Crimson Tide suffered a devastating 29-24 upset against No. 15 Texas A&M.

It’s not just the loss, which likely cost Saban and the Tide another shot at a national title. It’s that Alabama didn’t do enough of what it does best — run the football — in the one game this season where it was most crucial.

The Tide didn’t run enough to keep Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel on the bench as much as the Tide needed him to be there, and the dual-threat freshman phenom made plays. He made the big runs early to help the Aggies build a 20-0 lead, and he made the big throws late to help them keep it.

Even after Alabama’s defense loaded the box to keep Manziel behind the line of scrimmage, he threw lasers against an Alabama secondary that gave him just enough openings.

And to think of all the chances he might not have had, had Alabama managed more than its 26 called runs against the nation’s 31st-best run defense.

To think of all the football “Johnny Football” wouldn’t have played, had Alabama done better than its near-five-minute disadvantage in time of possession — a statistic that’s often overrated, but not in this game.

Then, symbolic of the night, when Alabama had fourth down and goal at the A&M 2-yard line with a chance to win in the fourth quarter, the Tide … passed.

Quarterback AJ McCarron threw his second interception of the game, partly because Alabama didn’t get enough of a pick on a designed pick play.

But that’s a risk one takes when passing at the 2-yard line, where the defense is likely to expect a quick pass and jump the route.

“I wish we would have run it, just like you, because passing it didn’t work,” Saban snarled at a reporter who asked. “If we would have run it, you would be asking me why we didn’t throw it.”

If Alabama had run more Saturday, then there might not have been cause to ask.

In the final count, Alabama ran 65 plays. The 39 called passes included 34 McCarron pass attempts and five McCarron scrambles out of pass plays.

Running back Eddie Lacy had just 16 carries, and exciting freshman T.J. Yeldon had 10.

Lacy tied for the game lead with 92 net rushing yards, but he tied a quarterback — Manziel.

In fairness to Alabama’s coaching staff, they were tempted by a defense that loads the box and blitzes. There’s a reason why A&M is the nation’s 70th-best pass defense, and McCarron completed 21 of 34 passes for 309 yards and a touchdown.

Then again, he threw the two interceptions, ending the SEC’s second-longest streak of attempts without a pick at 292.

He also got sacked twice, once while trying a play-action pass to the tight end on first down. A&M covered tight end Michael Williams.

That McCarron ended up scrambling five times, including on third down and goal at the 5 in the crucial final possession, showed that A&M’s defense threw him curveballs.

There was a lot of that. Alabama center Barrett Jones said A&M’s defense did a lot that Alabama’s offensive brain trust and players hadn’t seen on film.

“It’d be too hard to explain without a grease board,” the frustrated Jones said.

Alabama expected that. Saban said the Tide came into the game with a lot of audibles or “check-with-mes” baked into the plan.

Apparently, first-year Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin found a way to talk Alabama out of using its running game enough to keep Manziel on the sideline.

Manziel accounted for 345 yards in total offense, including 253 yards on 24-for-31 passing. He threw two touchdown passes, 10 yards to Ryan Swope and 24 yards to Malcome Kennedy.

Manziel had enough time to buy enough time to keep too much pressure on an Alabama secondary that had its struggles with LSU’s Zach Mettenberger a week prior to Saturday.

This comes all because the coach new to the SEC outcoached the guy with three national titles a statue that marks his two at Alabama.

It’s not the first time we’ve seen this. In fact, it’s not the first time we’ve seen it in November.

Saban is now 14-8 in November during his six-year Alabama tenure. Four of those losses came with his first Alabama team, but four have come in the past three years.

Of those later four — to LSU and Auburn in 2010, to LSU in 2011 and to Texas A&M on Saturday — three came in Bryant-Denny Stadium, that 101,000-seat palace that stands just a few yards from Saban’s statue.

The loss to LSU in 2010 ended the Tide’s national title hopes, and the loss of a 24-0 lead to Auburn sickened Alabama fans who badly wanted the Tide to ruin the in-state rival’s national title hopes.

The loss to LSU in 2011 would have cost Alabama a chance at a national championship had Oklahoma State not suffered an unthinkable upset at Iowa State.

The loss to Texas A&M will likely cost Alabama that chance this year, unless Alabama wins out and only one team among BCS No. 2 Kansas State, No. 3 Oregon and No. 4 Notre Dame reaches Selection Sunday unbeaten.

Saban’s most recent November loss came just a week after the Tide needed a dramatic drive inside the final two minutes to survive in an emotional victory at LSU. Saturday’s loss also came at the end of a stretch of three consecutive ranked opponents.

“I was really concerned about that this week,” Saban said. “We seemed like we were a little bit out of gas.

“… We were going to need to play our best game today, and we didn’t do it, and that’s my responsibility.”

Especially when one considers that just a few more run calls could have kept Manziel from making just a few plays, and that might have been just enough to keep Alabama in control of its BCS destiny.

Sports Columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter @jmedley_star.

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