TUSCALOOSA — If there’s a common thread in Alabama’s three losses this fall, it’s found up front.
Each featured several key protection breakdowns.
Breakdowns became turning points. Add it up and the Crimson Tide is heading to the Capital One Bowl instead of a BCS contest for the first time in three years.
But when Alabama meets seventh ranked Michigan State on Jan. 1, it’ll have a luxury not enjoyed for some time. The old gang is back together on the offensive line after injuries splintered the continuity that can’t be measured on a stat sheet.
Most notably, All-SEC right guard Barrett Jones is working back into shape after missing the final two regular season games with a sprained ankle.
“It’s been good having Barrett back since bowl practices will help us,” said starting center William Vlachos who missed the first three bowl practices with the flu. “He’s certainly one of our leaders up front. As y’all well know, on the offensive line, continuity is a big thing for us. We’ve had some very sharp practices, the ones that I’ve been back for, and we’re looking forward to getting deeper into the game plan as we get closer to the game. We’re getting ready to play our best game of the year.”
Jones was hardly the only starter to miss time this fall — a problem that wasn’t felt much at all during Alabama’s national title run a year ago.
Right tackle D.J. Fluker missed parts of four midseason games with a groin injury that brought utility lineman Alfred McCullough into the starting lineup for the first time. The Athens product also filled in for left tackle James Carpenter when he went down with a minor injury against Penn State in September.
The last time the regular starting five lineman made it through a game without injury was the last game Alabama’s winning streak survived. The 31-6 win over Florida was immediately followed by the 35-21 loss at South Carolina when Greg McElroy was sacked seven times and Fluker went down with his injury.
Four weeks later at LSU, the senior quarterback was taken down three times. The third also included a fourth-quarter fumble that turned into the deciding field goal in a 24-21 loss.
Then against Auburn with the Tide driving for what could have been a knockout punch late in the first half, Tiger defensive lineman Brandon Fairley blew past Jones’ replacement right guard Anthony Steen to force a turnover and keep Alabama’s lead at 17-points that eventually turned into a 28-27 loss.
Before it was over, Fluker was beat around the end by Tiger cornerback T’Sharvan Bell who threw McElroy to the turf with a game-ending concussion.
“I think in the offensive line continuity is most important because those guys work together so much,” coach Nick Saban said. “You get the right combination of guys feeling comfortable playing with experienced guys next to guys that have a little less experience. That makes them feel more comfortable and confident and probably minimizes some of the mental errors, which was something that hurt us in the last few games because we didn’t have the continuity that we had earlier in the season. I think that’s the biggest thing.”
Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi has watched his share of tape on the Alabama offense. What he sees is a line that does the same things as the only team who beat the Spartans this season.
But I would say they’re similar to Iowa offensively,” Narduzzi told reporters in East Lansing comparing the Tide to the team that handed MSU a 37-6 beating. “They have a lot of things Iowa does. We didn’t fair very well (against Iowa). Outside zone, inside zone, they’re going to keep pounding you. Offensive line is similar to Iowa athletically. They’re not a huge Wisconsin type of offensive line. They’re a very athletic Iowa tough and know exactly where to go.”
As a team, Michigan State isn’t one to spend much time in the opposing team’s backfield. It ranks 83rd nationally in sacks and 85th in tackles for loss with 1.7 and 5.2 per game respectively.
Michael Casagrande covers University of Alabama sports for The Star.