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Initial Impressions from the LSU Game

The Bernie Madoff of prep kicking prospects?
The Bernie Madoff of prep kicking prospects?

The reason it reads like an autopsy is because it is one.

The 30,000 feet overview? We narrowly won ugly on offense, we won on defense, and we bled from the asses on special teams. The punting game was actually a major surprise, and shocking enough Cody Mandell actually out-punted Brad Wing, but the kicking game was an outright disaster and our long-term inability to recruit quality specialists dug our graves, lowered the caskets, shoveled dirt on top, and cued Amazing Grace last night in Bryant-Denny Stadium. It's not an issue of simply undervaluing the kicking game; Lord knows we've tried everything possible in terms of recruiting to rectify the situation, we've just failed miserably at talent evaluation. Cade Foster turned out to be even more of a waste than Corey Smith, and given how badly we've botched the previous two kicking evaluations it's hard to generate much confidence in 2012 commitment Adam Griffith regardless of his prep accolades.

Underlying the missed kicks, however, are two more fundamental concerns, one with relation to red zone efficiency and the other regarding decision making by the coaching staff. We'll address both, but starting with red zone efficiency we've had issues for years now convertig in the red zone and in general in situations where we are approaching the red zone. As a general rule you need to get some points any time you go inside your opponent's 40-yard line, and we could not do that several times last night. More specifically, even barring touchdowns, what we needed to do was advance the ball deeper into LSU territory to allow the reliable Jeremy Shelley to convert the short-yardage kicks that are within his range. Unable to do that however due to a sputtering offense, we were left to try errant pot shots with a hapless kicker with no real chance of success.

Now, that leads directly the decision making of the coaching staff. The four missed kicks were from 44, 50, 49, and 52 yards, and again there was no real chance of success on any of them (in hindsight it was nothing short of a minor miracle that Foster hit the 46-yarder in the third quarter). So why even attempt them in the first place? Why not just punt the football, pin a sputtering LSU offense up deep, and allow your stifling defense to get a quick stop and get the ball back to your offense in good field position? Instead of doing that, however, we chose to piss away valuable field position and in turn left the LSU offense with great starting field position for much of the night, taxing our defense even further and forcing our offense to march even farther when the defense did get a stop. And that decision making was even more suspect when we brought Shelley on for the 49-yard field goal try, which was well beyond his range and effectively tantamount to bringing a sorority pledge onto the field in a high-stakes Kick for Tuition contest (in hindsight, we were fortunate LSU didn't scoop and score with the block). It's one thing to be unable to recruit a kicker, but that shortcoming cannot be fixed in early November and at the very least you can pursue strategies on gameday that mitigate your weaknesses. For whatever reason last night, however, the coaching staff decided to emphasize rather than minimize our own flaws and that may have proven the difference.

Moving outside of the kicking game, LSU seized victory last night largely at the point of attack against our offensive line. Given their undersized front four, our path to victory was to effectively run the football and to use our size and physical power backs to impose our will on their defense, but in the end we were largely unable to do so. At the end of the night we had 31 carries for 96 yards and in countless situations where an effective running game could have taken us beyond those long-yardage kicks it simply sputtered. And, of course, Jim McElwain went away from Trent Richardson several times in which he should have likely gotten the ball deep in LSU territory. Kicking game notwithstanding, to win last night we needed to establish the run at the line of scrimmage and we simply could not do that.

AJ McCarron deserves his own indictment for crimes against national championships. In a game where the defense played so exceedingly well that all McCarron needed to do was manage the game, he failed miserably at even doing that. Barring check downs to Richardson he had 25 passing attempts that netted 113 yards, two sacks, and a back-breaking interception. The interception itself was just damning and unforgivable. With the lead, an immovable defense, possession of the football, a first and ten, good field position, and with a mere fifteen minutes separating us from a trip to New Orleans, McCarron took the crystal ball and shattered the damn thing like he just wandered into a Greek wedding. Given the play of our defense and winning the field position battle, odds are that a 6-3 lead would have held up last night, but McCarron simply could not even manage the game. Making matters worse, his overtime performance was just as poor, first missing an open Trent Richardson on a wheel route that would have either resulted in touchdown at best or a first and goal at worst and then taking a sack on the key third down which pushed us even further out of field goal range. If I were Phillip Sims, I'd step back from the transfer considerations and start getting ready for spring practice in Tuscaloosa.

And since the subject of backbreaking interceptions has been broached, the trick pass by Marquis Maze can be added to the laundry list of indefensible decisions and performances. With a tie game in the fourth quarter of a low-scoring slugfest, you have the football on your opponent's 28-yard line with a fresh set of downs, and arguably the best tailback in the history of Alabama football in the backfield. At the risk of playing Sunday morning quarterback, you put the football in his hands, you run the football and you get closer to Jeremy Shelley's field goal range for a potential short go-ahead field goal that can yield a 9-6 lead with under ten minutes left. Instead, what do we do? We run a trick pass with a wide receiver, the exact same pass that we ran last year against Florida, and not surprisingly LSU covered it well (turns out they did a bit of film analysis on the bye week, who knew?). Maze was blown up in the backfield, had to make an off balance throw under duress, and then Michael Williams went up for the football like an 80-year old sales clerk going up to get something off the top shelf of a department store. A 6'7, 265 pound tight end simply cannot lose a jump ball to a 6'2, 210 pound safety. Period. Terrible decision, terrible execution, disastrous result.

Furthermore, speaking of Williams, as I wrote in the middle of last week, given the lack of size outside in the wide receiver corps it was of the utmost importance that the tight ends play well, and both Williams and Brad Smelley had arguably their worst performances of the season. We needed them to be consistent contributors in the short-and-intermediate passing game, and their efforts yielded a combined two catches for nine yards.

On the bittersweet side, can there possibly be sufficient praise for the play of the defense? They singlehandedly ruined Jarrett Lee's feel good story, catching almost as many of his passes as LSU receivers did, and in the end the Bayou Bengal offense was reduced to nothing more than the occasional option play and the ad-libbed scrambling of Jordan Jefferson. Bill Oliver said in November of 1992 that he wished Bryant were alive to watch that defense play, and with all due respect to that unit, I'd wager that if Bryant were alive today he pass over film of that defense and watch this group play instead. It's hard to even fathom within the bounds of reality how a defense could even theoretically be more suffocating. Such a shame that it was all wasted, and it should forever serve as a reminder for all of those who talk about how defense wins championship that offense and special teams can sure as hell lose them.

In the end, the defense made literally one mistake all night long and that proved to not be in the margin of error. Russell Shepard went for 34 yards after a mental breakdown to set up the game-tying field goal at the end of the first half, and that one mistake that yielded a whopping three points was simply one mistake too many given how the offense and special teams threw this game away with their various shortcomings. It was a perfect performance sans one minor blip, and that one minor blip was too much to emerge victorious. Plain damn sickening to think about, really.

In the end, with all due respect to LSU, this game was defined more by the things we did not do. Bill Walsh does not need to be resurrected to perform this postmortem: In a game of such two evenly matched teams, you simply cannot miss four kicks and have two critical turnovers and win. The fact that we had more first downs, more total yards, and won the time of possession battle are merely random data points in the face of such mistakes. The defense did everything humanly possible and it was ultimately just a wasted performance.

And as for LSU, a big tip of the houndstooth fedora is in order. Tyrann Mathieu's mother would have done the world a service had she exercised her rights under Roe v. Wade, but aside from him there is absolutely nothing negative that can be said of this Bayou Bengal team that took the field last night. They did exactly what they needed and they played the game exactly as it is supposed to be played. Barring an unexpected choke-job for the ages in the final four weeks, all the crystal spoils go to Baton Rouge and rightfully so. No hatred, no bitterness, no jealousy, just hard-earned respect for a team that was simply better than we were. This isn't a repeat of 2007, they did it the right way. Even when defeat feels like death you still have respect for the game and those that play it how it was meant to be played.

Now much talk will turn to the prospects of a rematch, but as Todd warned last week on RBR, that's just not a realistic possibility. We'll see how the BCS shakes out later today, but odds are that we fall behind an undefeated Boise team, and in any event it's far from a given that both Oklahoma State and Stanford will lose in the final four weeks. Making matters worse, with games left against only Mississippi State, Georgia Southern and Auburn with no feasible path to Atlanta, we have no opportunities left for a marquee victory to propel ourselves back up in the polls. For obvious reasons I'd love nothing more than to get a rematch in New Orleans, and I'll be blunt in stating it's clear these are far and away the two best teams in the country, but that's just hope, high talk, and hot air; it's simply not based in reality and it should not be treated as such. We played in a Game of the Century last night and we lost; it's over, just painful history at this point that can never be re-written. And, frankly, as much as I would like to believe otherwise, I'm not sure the rematch would change anything. There is a fairly strong argument to the effect that if we could not get it done last night in Tuscaloosa, we couldn't get it done in nine weeks in New Orleans. And many pollsters will vote according to that logic, too.

Long-term for Alabama, we'll be back at some point, the traditional powerhouses always do, but exactly when? Next year will not be the year with roster attrition and a brutal road schedule, and no one can legitimately say what 2013 will bring. The harsh truth of the matter is that regardless of how long Nick Saban resides in Tuscaloosa, his time at the Capstone is limited; opportunities like this are exceedingly rare, and once squandered they can never be recovered. Barring a repeat of the insanity of the final four weeks of the 2007 season, for Alabama the 2011 season will always be about what could have been but never was. 1962, 1974, 1977, 1994, 2008, and now 2011.

And beyond that, just the pain, all the damn pain, like a dull serrated Bowie knife twisted repeatedly through the chest. Longtime RBR readers will know that I make few concrete guarantees on this blog, but I can make you one in the immediate aftermath: If you picked up chlamydia last night it will reside before the pain from this loss does. Personally, I'd rather get pulled out of the sewer, dragged through the streets, and shot like Qaddafi than ever watch that game film again. If I'm ever tortured with that game film again it will undoubtedly be in the pits of Hell.

In any event, the past is past, and while fans can and likely will sulk in their misery for days if not weeks, for this team and this coaching staff Mississippi State week begins in only a few hours. Georgia Southern is obligatory, but road trips to Starkville and Auburn could easily turn into losses with mental and emotional hangovers, and say what you will about missed national championships, the point remains that this team still has much to play for. With three victories to close the season 'Bama ends up in a BCS game and likely finishes second in the nation, but with a loss we are heading back to Orlando to take on a Big Ten also-ran. And, quite frankly, if we have any chance of keeping our sub-atomic national championship hopes alive, not only do we need to win, the fact of the matter is we need to blast Mississippi State back to the Stone Ages and do more damage on the Plains than a ten thousand Harvey Updykes could ever dream of. Truth be told the loss last night will be taken to the grave, but the 2011 season continues nonetheless and for this team the grind must start again tonight.