Many may consider this piece a bit late to the party, but I generally find it best to wait a few days before doing an analysis so that you can fully digest the entirety of a particular game without being so heavily swayed by raw emotions and first takes. Obviously with my Initial Impressions piece that is a luxury that is not always afforded throughout the regular season because attention turns so quickly to the next opponent, but for a special game like a national championship game, I want to take a closer look at the game. So, with all of that in mind, a few thoughts on the BCS Championship Game:
First and foremost, contrary to much hot air flowing over the injury to Colt McCoy, I will advance the argument that the injury to McCoy did dramatically change the way the game was played, but almost certainly had no impact on the end result. That statement may seem a bit self-conflicting, so I will elaborate further.
From the outset of the game, Alabama came out looking very aggressive -- notice taking the ball to begin the game, quite a few passes, plus the fake punt -- but when McCoy went out and the Tide regained the lead, it adopted an offensive strategy about as conservative as the offensive strategy used the last time it was in the Rose Bowl. Texas, on the other hand, with McCoy out of the game, lost any threat of a running threat from the quarterback position and was forced to go to a more traditional drop-back passing attack. Given all of that, I think it is quite clear that the game would have played out very differently had McCoy stayed in the game.
On the other hand, however, the biggest determining factor in the outcome of this game was the ability of the Alabama offense to run the football at will against Texas' vaunted run defense. That and that alone was the major difference between the two teams, and McCoy's availability would not have changed that one bit. Again, the injury to McCoy dramatically changed the way the game was played, but had almost no impact whatsoever.
Two more observations on the injury to McCoy... given the physical nature of our defense, was it really a shock that we knocked a running quarterback out of the game on a running play? Second, for all of the Texas cries over the injury to McCoy -- many of which are legitimate, mind you, and I can certainly sympathize -- it should be also pointed out that had it not been for another shoulder injury (see Sam Bradford), Texas may not have even made it to Pasadena in the first place.
Now, despite being dismissed by many people, Garrett Gilbert actually played a pretty damn good game in his own right. He did get off to a very slow start -- would you really expect otherwise given the circumstances? -- but he rallied and ultimately played a fine game in the second half. On down the stretch, Gilbert more closely resembled a fifth-year senior than a freshman.
And in reality, the real problem for Texas wasn't Gilbert as much as it was a poor performance by his receivers. Jordan Shipley played a fine game, but everyone else generally struggled. There were several crucial drops, and two in particular proved to be damning. The first was when Malcom Williams dropped a perfectly thrown touchdown pass with Texas driving that would have closed the game to 14-12 and would have given Texas the opportunity to tie the game with a successful two-point conversion (Javier Arenas intercepted a pass on the following play), and the second was the shovel pass debacle, where the ball bounced right off D.J. Monroe's hands. Gilbert was to blame for neither game-changing play. Again, the problem wasn't so much Gilbert as it was poor play from his receivers.
Greg McElroy, on the other hand, played a highly unproductive game. One of the write-ups at Football Outsiders, in fact, compared McElroy's performance to that of Rex Grossman in the Super Bowl a few years back against the Colts. And in all objectivity, aside from one throw to Julio Jones, he made almost zero positive plays in the passing game, and held onto the football entirely too long in the process in taking too many sacks. On the other hand, though, I'll defend McElroy here. Even aside from playing with broken ribs, McElroy in many ways performed the game plan perfectly... the Texas defense lived on turnovers coming into this game, and McElroy's unreal display of excessive caution denied any chance of them doing that. Furthermore, it was exactly what the Tide coaching staff wanted its quarterback to do. In other words, McElroy did almost nothing in terms of positive production, but did exactly what our coaching staff wanted him to do and exactly what he needed to do for us to win.
And speaking of the aforementioned shovel pass debacle, that was a terrible call by Brown, and not because it was a risky play. Far from it, in fact, the shovel pass is probably the single safest play imaginable this side of the victory formation, but the decision is damnable because of its complete and total lack of a potential reward. Mack Brown said at halftime he was trying to set up a situation for a heave into the end zone to end the half. Fair enough. But think about that... you run a play to try to set up an effective Hail Mary, which has approximately 0.001% of being successful. So you practically take at least some risk -- knowing that something like that could happen -- all chasing a non-existent reward. That is what makes the call damning, not so much the play call itself.
With the 24-6 lead at halftime, Alabama had this game won and needed only the smallest amount of offensive production to drive the final nail in the Texas coffin. We had three drives in the third quarter with the three-possession lead, and had we just been able to combine for two or three first downs during that stretch -- which would have drained another four-to-six minutes off the game clock, and perhaps more -- the game would have been over. Instead, the offense went three-and-out on all three possessions and we gave Texas life.
Late in the third quarter and on into the fourth quarter, our defense really had some major problems. Gilbert had settled in and was playing well, and we seemed completely unprepared to stop a traditional drop-back passing attack. We kept going to a lot of vanilla pass rushes from a base four-man front, the Texas offensive line picked it up with ease, and Gilbert was picking us apart on the back end. I don't think our coaching staff ever thought the defense would fold in the way that it did, but they did. Credit goes to Gilbert... he had us very much on the ropes. In hindsight, once Gilbert became settled, I honestly think we had more problems with him than we would have had even had McCoy been in the game.
The game-changing play, obviously, came with the blown assignment up front that allowed Eryk Anders to rush in for the sack in the closing minutes. Had that not happened, I might even go so far as saying that the smart money would have been on the 'Horns matching down the field and pulling off the upset to end all upsets. Even had Texas recovered the fumble -- remember, the sack by Anders didn't end it for Texas, but the recovery by Courtney Upshaw did -- I'm not sure we could have stopped them then, even though they would have faced a 2nd and 24. It was four down territory, and we had surrendered a couple of third and very long situations earlier in the game. I'm afraid to say that from the looks of things, we had no answer for Gilbert and company at that point. Thankfully, Anders and Upshaw changed all of that.
Finally, I'll have a lot more up on this game in the coming days and weeks, but as a closing point I did want to make mention of the incredible play by both Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson. Ingram justified his Heisman Trophy and then some with a performance for the ages, and I will once again reiterate that for all of Ingram's greatness, I truly believe that Richardson is a better player. One way or the other, though, all of that is really a meaningless distinction. The real point that should be taken away is not an argument over who is better, but just how ridiculous it is that there are such two such incredible young tailbacks sharing the same backfield. The combination of Ingram and Richardson could be the best tailback combo we've seen in college football in decades, and at the very least it's the most impressive pairing of underclassmen that I have ever seen.