Monday, September 27, 2010

Tide Roll On, Barely

By Ross Lancaster

Through two and a half quarters on Saturday, Arkansas threw everything it had at Alabama. With the exception of a few plays, all the punches the Hogs threw in that time were their best. Yet, the final boost from Alabama was so good, and so brilliantly typical of the Crimson Tide of the last two and a half seasons, that a neutral could have felt foolish for even thinking that Alabama could lose.

The way Alabama came back involved a script that we've seen before from Alabama. After being down 20-7 in that third quarter, the Tide relied most prominently on the play of Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, who ran for 157 yards. But the unsung heroes were the members of the young Alabama defense.

While Arkansas was in the process of building a near two-touchdown lead, Alabama's defense was showing its inexperience. On the first two plays of the game, the Alabama secondary gave up 74 yards. The two plays saw un-Alabama like egregious defensive errors being committed, including missed tackles and about 10 yards of separation given by the defensive backs. Less than a minute in, the Tide were down 7-0 in a hostile environment on the road in the SEC.

The next two quarters or so were inevitably better, but Arkansas' Ryan Mallett carved up the Tide with such constituency by the air that hadn't been seen against Alabama since Nick Saban's first year with the team. It should be noted that Alabama did force a Mallett interception in the end zone in the second quarter on a third-and-goal, the Tide's defensive highlight of the first 40 minutes of the game.

It sounds trite, but Alabama under Nick Saban embodies a never-say-die attitude. The defense, late in the third quarter, began to pressure Mallett, and the defensive backs who had given Mallett windows to place his throws began to stick to the Razorbacks' receivers. In the fourth quarter, this defensive turnabout manifested itself into the key play of the game.

With less than five minutes to go, and the Razorbacks holding onto a three-point lead inside their own 20 with on a 3rd-and-11 play, Alabama linebacker Courtney Upshaw blitzed and was about to shed his block to sack Mallett, forcing an early throw. Mallett overthrew his covered target, allowing Alabama's Robert Lester, who was providing safety help on the play, to make the game-changing interception. Lester returned it all the way to Arkansas' 12-yard line, prompting Ingram's 1-yard game-winning touchdown run.

As Mallett felt the effects of a Crimson Tide defense maturing before his eyes, his Alabama counterpart Greg McElroy improved from a two-interception second quarter. One of McElroy's two INTs was in the end zone, and the other led to an Arkansas touchdown in the dying stages of the first half. As the game progressed, however, McElroy made all the necessary throws for the Tide to win, including a couple of clutch third-down conversions.

Early-season games between two highly-ranked teams often pose many pre-game questions. The main ones for Saturday included:

* Can Alabama be beaten?
* Is Ryan Mallett as good as his first three games suggested?
* How will Mark Ingram's knee hold up in Alabama's first big test?
* Is Arkansas as a team as good as their ranking?

Big games in September struggle for context not only because not many games have been played yet, but also because over two-thirds of the season remain. Of the above questions, only the third can really be answered authoritatively as "very well." Ingram has not only shown no signs of injury in his first two games back, but has picked up right from where his Heisman-winning season left off.

Arkansas looked like a top-10 team Saturday, but its best win to this point is a last-minute win over a Georgia team that may be imploding already. By the same token, Mallett was very good through 40 minutes today, but made two big mistakes and put up huge numbers against potentially awful teams.

The first inquiry is the most interesting. Alabama definitely looked like it could be taken down at several stages today, but it has to take a more balanced offensive performance than what Arkansas offers.

Defensively, it looks ever the more unlikely that both Ingram and Trent Richardson can be held in check for a whole game. If a team wants to beat Alabama, it needs to limit the two super backs as much as possible while making McElroy try to beat you. Yet every time a team has forced McElroy to make the big plays, he has (think of the SEC Championship Game against Florida last December). It's one of the many reasons he hasn't lost a game as a starter since the eighth grade.

It's possible that Alabama played its toughest road game Saturday. But it may also be the case that trips to South Carolina and LSU may provide every bit the test that Arkansas did Saturday. The Florida game next week will get a massive amount of hype, but Alabama should win considering that they get the Gators at home and because this Florida team has looked underwhelming, despite the annual shellacking it put on Kentucky Saturday. Auburn looks impressive so far, but the Tide also get the Tigers at home. It also looks hard to predict how gaudy a record Auburn could build up, given that it has already won three games by a possession or less.

Alabama should be favored in every game until they lose at least, and deservedly so. Saturday's game showed that the Tide can still win by their trademark formula, even if the names are a little different and not everything goes their way to start.

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