Twas digging through my hard drive before I get rid of my old desktop, and I found the below write-up of the 2008 SECCG from back when I did the "From The Couch" articles for Bama Sports Report. So here's a bit of a trip back to when we were almost there.
Before I start talking about who did what, I have a few words to say about the game overall. All this game lacked was a thrilling last-minute resolution to be a serious nominee for Greatest College Football Game Ever Played. The level of play in this game was in the atmosphere, far above any other game I've seen this year, and yes that includes Texas-Oklahoma.
Don't get me wrong, I really hate it that we lost, but this game does not leave me with the bitter feeling in my mouth that I had after the three other times we lost when we had a shot at the brass ring: Nebraska in the '72 Orange Bowl when we ran into a better team and folded like an Army blanket, and Notre Dame in the '73 Sugar and '74 Orange when we had a much better team both times and just listlessly frittered the games away. This time we played as well as we could play. Sure we made a couple of mistakes, and they hurt, but you can't play 60 minutes of sheer perfection at that energy level. Our mistakes were few, our determination and grit high.
Unfortunately, so was Florida's. We came to play; they came to play. We brought a superior team to the field; they brought a great team to the field. Both teams had to show all their cards, and Tebow made it a royal flush for the Gators. This game didn't get all the breathless hype of the USC-Notre Dame game of 3-4 years back, but it was a much better-played game.
I'm 53 years old and I've never taken pride in a loss before, but there's a first time for everything.
We did a lot of things right on offense:
- No turnovers
- No penalties
- Only one yardage-losing play in the entire game
- 5-12 third down conversions (good but not great)
- 18 1st downs and 323 yards against a top defense
But somehow all that amounted to only 20 points, our second-lowest total of the season. Chalk that up to the Gator D making the big plays that had to be made at the times they needed to be made. It all started when Ahmad Black blew up Darius Hanks a yard short of the first down on a 3rd and 3 on the Tide's first possession, and it continued right on through the Jermaine McDaniel sack that effectively won the game to the Joe Haden pick that ended the last shred of suspense.
John Parker Wilson was not at his most accurate passing, but this was the headiest game of his career. That's the second time I've said that in recent weeks, which I take as a sign that the Tide's senior signal caller is finally, belatedly "getting it" as a quarterback.
I noticed earlier this year that Wilson's increased arm strength and muscle mass qualify him physically for playing quarterback in the NFL, but now, for the first time, I am starting to think he will actually make a League roster next year. Throughout most of his Bama career, Wilson has looked downfield as if his neck vertebrae were fused together in a way that made it impossible for him to turn his head. Saturday, he looked around repeatedly, and went to alternate receivers several times. Further, he showed more than once a pocket presence he has never previously displayed, sliding around blockers to get away from rushing Gators and then, lo and behold, setting back up to look downfield for an open man.
Don't get me wrong. His vision still needs some work, and there were a couple of times - almost comical if they weren't so sad - that he escaped from the pocket basically by sprinting almost directly away from the line of scrimmage deeper into the backfield, as if there were some kind of refuge back there somewhere. Youch.
But still. You have to hand it to the guy for the progress he made this year. The Florida Wilson and the Tulane Wilson? Two different guys. You also have to hand it to him for stepping up when it counted. Without exception, his worst games came in the least important games, and when it counted, John Parker came to play.
It's about time for me to come around on Glen Coffee. I saw in game 1 that Ingram is superior physically, and I thought that meant that Ingram would be starting soon. It took me 2-3 games to see how much better Coffee's vision is than Ingram's. Then I spent most of the season thinking that Trent Richardson - who is a very special back - will come right in and start, by mid-season at the latest. Early in the season, I didn't recognize how much better Coffee has gotten, and then as soon as I really realized that, around early mid-season, Coffee went on his fumble binge.
Well, Coffee hasn't fumbled in six games, and he's still hitting holes like Tiger Woods with a four-foot putt. I haven't soured on Mr. Richardson one little bit, but I think he will play one year at second string for the Tide.
And yes, that means I think Ingram will be third string next year - even though I also think Ingram has a solid NFL future ahead of him. At least he will be third string unless he gets a lot better at finding daylight during the off-season [Note from the future: he did, and this was before I realized what a year working with Burton Burns means] - he had a couple of notable failures in that regard Saturday. He would do well to study up on his older teammate as much as possible.
As for Coffee, he hit the holes hard and ran with authority Saturday, just as he has all season. The only thing that kept him from a Kentucky-like 200+-yard game was that Florida's DBs were a lot better at getting onto him and bringing him down in space than Kentucky's were. On one first-half play, for example, a Florida DB grabbed him by the back of his pants as he went past and held on for dear life. The DB went flying through the air, but he landed on the back of Coffee's legs and wrapped him up.
On Coffee's four-yard dive into the end zone at the end of his 18-yard first-quarter TD run, he actually held himself up in the air and pushed off the ground with his left hand to get across the goalline. I've never seen a back push off the ground so effectively; it clearly gave Coffee an extra yard before his knees hit, and turned the play into a touchdown it would not otherwise have been. CBS showed several replays of it, but the clueless announcers never caught on to his use of the hand, which showed clearly. Verne Lundquist: "It's almost as if he realized he needed to keep his knees off the ground." Yeah, Verne, it is almost that way. (sheesh)
We could've used Upchurch late in the third quarter.
Walker was so wide open on the two bootlegs that you have to wonder why we didn't run it another time or two. It was good to see Nick grab the ball and head straight upfield as opposed to the ineffective juking around we have seen earlier in the season.
On Coffee's first-quarter TD run, McCall turned inside to seal the line, saw that Drew Davis had that covered, then wheeled outside, found a linebacker, and pushed him out. Coffee ran through the resulting hole, then used his downfield blocking to cut outside again and score.
We will not have a McCall next year.
I don't really fault Darius Hanks for not making the diving third-down catch that whistled through his hands in a crucial second-quarter possession just after the Gators had tied it up - but Florida's receivers caught that kind of ball all night long. On the other hand, I don't think even Julio would've gotten the first down on that early catch where Black put the shot on Darius. (But then again. . . .)
Speaking of Julio, I don't guess I need to tell anybody that Julio played a very, very special game. Not only that, but the young man who I would normally describe with words like "stolid," "taciturn," or even "solemn," saw fit to do a bit of yakking at Florida DBs after a couple of his big plays. He did turn the wrong way on Wilson's extemporaneous throw into the end zone in the third quarter, but Bama found paydirt on that drive anyway.
If there's one area where Alabama thoroughly beat Florida, it would be the matchup of our offensive line against their defensive line. The only thing that stopped our running game from putting up Clemson-like numbers - by which I mean, of course, the kind of numbers WE put up against Clemson, not what Auburn With A Lake does itself - was some stout play by Florida's defensive backs coming up from the third level to tackle low and effectively.
Pass protection was the same. Florida got decent pressure at time, but it was invariably a schematic breakdown in picking up a blitz as opposed to our linemen getting beat. The latter only happened once. (Speaking of those blitzes, we did miss Upchurch and his ability to make the screen pass really happen.)
That once that their DL beat our OL was a killer, though. Mid-way through the fourth quarter, trailing 24-20, Bama had a 3rd and 5 or so. Florida ran a "twist" rush on the weak side, where the tackle rushes outside and the defensive end takes a step backward and loops around behind the tackle to come in through the middle, hoping to confuse the offensive line. It worked. Drew Davis correctly picked up the tackle - which was easy, the guy came straight at him right off the snap - but the hard part was left to Marlon Davis, who, unfortunately, turned right to stay with the tackle who he had THOUGHT was going to be his man to block. That left Davis' gap wide open, and Gator DE Jermaine Cunningham, the twister, came free through the gap.
JPW barely had a chance, and Alabama, faced with 4th and 15-ish, was forced to send Tim Tebow and his talented mates an engraved invitation to put the game away. Which they accepted, of course.
This was the best offensive line Bama has faced all year, hands down. It was nowhere near good enough to run up the middle on us, though - at least until the Gators managed to pull off a couple of effective runs up the gut in the fourth quarter, after they had schooled us not to expect it by not even trying more than a time or two in the first three quarters.
Pass pressure was another story, as in we didn't get very much. Certainly our defensive line pressured Tebow more than their defensive line pressured Wilson, but we didn't blitz as much as Florida did, and too often Florida's mini-Hercules had time to find somebody and deliver an accurate strike.
Don't get me wrong. Our guys sure kept pushing, and they did get occasional pressure. And the Gator ground attack only succeeded, when it did, at the edges of the field, i.e., the area that these guys are just not expected to cover. Tebow scrambled effectively a couple of time, but was generally held in check on the ground and forced to pitch when he optioned.
Breaking news: Rolando McClain Is A Man. On one first-quarter play from the Bama five-yard-line, Tim Tebow, generally considered the best short-yardage runner in the nation, ran around left tackle and was heading for paydirt. McClain, who was not in front of Tebow at all, but to the side within arms length, reached out and grabbed the Florida quarterlinebacker - and stopped him in his tracks. From the side. All by his lonesome.
My jaw dropped, and I had to replay that one two or three times. Yes, Rashad Johnson was in front of Tebow, and I guess it's possible Rashad made him hesitate or something, but he didn't lay a finger on him. Rolando did, and stopped him cold. They blew the whistle just before McClain picked him up and threw him.
Rolando is always there for the big games, and this one was no exception, as the big guy recorded nine tackles, seven of the solo variety. Don'ta Hightower only had three tackles, and was called for an unfortunate 15-yard borderline third-down facemask call on what was otherwise his finest play of the night, when he tracked down Florida speedster Jeff Demps near the sideline and short of the first down. Bama was on the nickel most of the night, so Corey Reamer was basically not seen. Eryk Anders saw limited time - we didn't blitz much - and got one hurry.
After seemingly having disappeared over the last few games, Justin Woodall was suddenly all over the place Saturday. Woodall defensed passes, made nine tackles, and shivered a few Florida timbers. Mr. Tebow, for example, will surely recall Mr. Woodall.
Rashad Johnson played with his usual abandon. I'm not sure Tebow felt the shots Rashad - who was giving up a good 50 pounds - laid on him, but he laid 'em on anyway. Rashad was never quite there in time to stop any of Tebow's perfectly thrown long sideline passes, but that problem is based more on the number of speedy receivers Florida sends deep than on any coverage or scheme failure.
For Marquis Johnson, it was a forgettable game. Beat badly deep once when he bit on a hitch and go, beat handily another time, and then when Marquis played perfect, tight pass D on Florida's last TD pass, Tebow and Marquis' man Riley Cooper hooked up on a completely indefensible great-pass/great-layout-catch combo to ice the game away.
A rare coaching lapse by the Bama staff led to a no-chance fake on a 3rd and 9 from the Florida 30 in the second quarter. It was a tough situation for the Tide, but stopping the fake seemed to fire the Gators up, and Florida controlled the rest of the half 10-0.
Then again, it didn't take much to make Florida seem fired up. Just like the Tide, the Gators left it all on the field for this one.
I'm probably foolish, but I'm somewhat forgiving toward the Javier Arenas kick-fielding error that started the Alabama offense behind the eight-ball and led to a three-and-out and three Florida points. It's not as if the ball was going to land way out of bounds - it was borderline. Try sprinting 20 yards to a spot, all the while preparing to stop dead, catch a high-velocity football with absolutely don't-even-think-about-dropping-it certainty, and immediately starting to run in the other direction full-bore, and see if you make every fine judgment perfectly. Yeah, that hurt. But Javy was in a tough spot.
The good news was that we played Florida, with their oh-so-gaudy special teams, straight up at the worst in the return/kick-blocking game. Although we did get to see Leigh Tiffin making two tackles (only one of which he was officially credited with, for some reason). That gives Leigh no less than seven tackles on the season, and folks, that is seven more than the appropriate number. Here's hoping that Tiffin either gains fifty pounds during the off-season, or . . . scratch that. Here's hoping we have a real kick-return defense next year. [Note from the future: Tiffin only had 2 tackles in 2009, but it wasn't because the atrocious kickoff return D got better. No, they were still awful, but in 2009 Tiffin missed the tackles, so several extra guys got off to the races.]