The upside of a game like this is that now you can get on with your life. Suddenly we have been liberated from having to obsess about the Tide's third straight natty run for several hours every day. Free time has blossomed for next weekend. Just think of the things you can get done now!
Out here in California, it's a beautiful Sunday today and I should be out there reveling in it, but I'm not. Instead I'm poring over exactly what happened yesterday, trying to make sense of it. And I dare say I'm not the only one who is not quite ready to let go of either the championship season or the crushing loss.
No, this entertainment spectacle had an unexpected tragic twist at the denouement, and I think some of us need to mourn that a little. It'll be sports mourning, of course: we'll blame the coaches, we'll blame the players that made key mistakes, we'll blame the refs, we'll blame luck, and we'll generally weep and wail and gnash our teeth for a bit, and then we'll go on. But do you go out and dance in the sunlight today? Or do you confront what happened ?
As for me, it's sports mourning day, and there's plenty of grist for it. Alabama's players and coaches did make plenty of mistakes, and the refs made did make several big late calls against Alabama, and may have missed some against Auburn. But truth needs to stick it's head in, too: it wasn't all just flukes and luck and Alabama mistakes. Auburn pinpointed the vulnerability of Alabama's defensive scheme and attacked it relentlessly, and with great success.
The first thing any observer who knows football would recognize from Alabama's defense is how very, very large the players are. Alabama is bigger than most NFL teams on D, even this year when the D is slightly smaller than it has been in the recent past.
That size makes it very difficult to run up the gut on Alabama, and the Tide takes away the sidelines as a schematic imperative. But it also creates the possibility of what happened yesterday: a team that plays a running game that attacks every part of the field can spread the Bama monsters out so that it becomes possible to get skill players into one-on-one situations in the largish in-between area that is neither up the middle nor on the sideline. If your skill players can beat the guys they will encounter in that area - usually Alabama's large linebackers - Alabama has no schematic answer for that.
That is exactly what happened on Saturday. Auburn ran up the middle, they ran on the sidelines, but they mostly did that to set up Tre Mason, Nick Marshall and Corey Grant for one-on-one matchups in the in-between areas, matchups that those guys often won. The story coming into this game may have been how well Alabama tackles, but here are the missed tackles I counted: 3 by Cyrus Jones, 3 by Jarvis Williams, 2 by Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, 1 by Trey Depriest, 1 by C.J. Mosley, 1 by Denzell Duvall, 1 by Landon Collins, 1 by Jeoffrey Pagan, 1 by Ed Stinson, and 1 by Adrian Hubbard. That's 15 missed tackles, and beyond doubt there were more that happened in scrums that weren't really visible on TV.
That wasn't a fluke. That was Auburn finding Alabama's weakness and flogging it. For the present, another team with a similar scheme and the same kind of speedy, elusive backs who can run through arm tackles can do the same thing to Alabama predictably - but the hole is probably already starting to close. Coach Saban made some remarks last year about changing to meet spread offenses, and as I've already pointed out, the 2013 Tide D is slightly smaller than the 2011 and 2012 versions. Expect that to be an ongoing trend, and expect 230-pound linebackers and 260-pound defensive ends to actually start having a chance for playing time at Alabama.
I don't usually complain about the refs because that's a loser move, but guess what, Alabama lost, so I studied up on the replays of Marshall's TD pass to Coates, ready to get on here and do that loser thing. The replays convinced me beyond the shadow of a doubt that the ball was probably a half-yard across the LOS when he released.
Just when I was getting ready to write this all up in the most loserific way possible, I decided I'd better check that ole rule just for funsies. And it says: "2. A forward pass is illegal if: a. It is thrown by a Team A player whose entire body is beyond the neutral zone when he releases the ball." So. Crap. OK then. Stupid rule, but it's the rule. And that's enough of the loser thing.
On to the reality thing. This will probably be the most famous college football game ever played, and Alabama lost. But remember this: the heart of the story is and always will be that an underdog rival won in a miraculous finish over one of the all-time great teams and programs. If you ever hear the story told in a way that doesn't accord Alabama that kind of respect, then the story is being told wrong.
So let's do the sports mourning thing; the recriminations, the accusations, the rending of garments, the scattering of ashes, the bitter drunken railings against fate. Heck, since we're not players, we can even take a bit more than 24 hours about it. But fate happens, and once it has happened, champions get up off the deck and start looking for the next ring. Keep the faith, baby, and believe that ultimately, Saturday will just be part of the story of the greatest college football program that ever stalked the gridiron.
To the positions.
Clearly, AJ was not at his best Saturday, especially early on. After starting the game with 2 accurate short throws, 4 of McCarron's next 6 passes were off the mark, including a crucial 3rd and 3 pass behind Norwood when #83 had lots of running room, maybe enough for a 73-yard touchdown. And while AJ found Amari Cooper behind the Auburn defense twice, Cooper actually got free for what should have been touchdowns 3 times and none of McCarron's throws to him were accurate. The 99-yard TD was merely the least inaccurate of the 3.
Other than on deep throws, McCarron settled down and threw accurately after the early misfires. He hit O.J. Howard for the first on 4th and 2 on the Tide' first scoring drive and had a big first-down scramble on a 3rd and 4 play in the 3rd quarter. AJ did find and hit two bombs to Cooper and Amari also dropped what should have been a game-clinching TD. But without another slow start for the Tide offense, would this game ever even have been close? Auburn is not an offense that is designed for the big comeback.
T.J. Yeldon carried 26 times for 144 yards and a TD. He started the game with a nifty cut to the right and turned on the speed for a 31-yard gain. He was elusive in the second level (when he got there), and he had a nifty and important blitz pickup on McCarron's TD pass to Norwood.
But ultimately, the Tide running game did not get it done in the second half while Yeldon was bearing the load alone. Yeldon couldn't convert short-yardage situations on the ground even when the staff kept stubbornly asking him to. That combined with the field-goal attempt fiasco to hold the Tide to 7 in the last 30 minutes of play even while McCarron was firing for 178 yards without a sack or a pick.
In between his 31-yard run on Alabama's first play and the two straight draws for 33 more that comprised Alabama's last two offensive plays, T.J. carried 23 times for 80 yards, a pedestrian 3.5 yards per against a team that is giving up 4.4 on the season. Twice he made poor decisions behind the line, turning well-blocked plays into nothing by cutting the wrong way. Of course, everybody noticed that he was repeatedly stoned in short-yardage situations, once somewhat shockingly getting knocked onto his rear end in the backfield at the Tide 2-yard-line by a safety with no help.
You have to presume that the Alabama coaching staff has seen in practice that the Kenyan Drake fumbling problem is really bad. Otherwise, there is no explanation for why #17 did not play more, as the unfortunate propensity to fumble he has shown in games really isn't all that much worse than Yeldon's similar propensity and does not explain his lack of carries when Yeldon was perhaps showing the effect of his ankle injury.
That's speculation, but whatever the reason may have been, Alabama did not follow its dependable pattern from the last several years of using two running backs heavily - another likely part of the reason Yeldon was not terribly effective for much of the game, as he is not accustomed to getting 26 totes, especially on what may be bum wheels. Drake only got to play during a single Alabama possession - a possession that ended in a touchdown, by the way - and he only carried four times. But each of those carries was for at least a 6-yard gain, while Yeldon gained 6 or more only 9 times in 26 totes, 3 of which were the draw plays at the ends of the two halves.
On the season, Yeldon has run 19 times in 3rd-and-short or 4th-down situations, and is 11 for 19 on converting those to first downs. Drake is 9 for 10 in converting in those same situations. On Saturday, Yeldon ran in those situations 5 times and only converted once, when he bounced outside on a 3rd and 2 carry.
The slow-developing off-tackle handoff to Yeldon in short-yardage situations works very well when Bama can put a hat on every defender, but it doesn't work when it's predictable, as proven Saturday. In particular, I'm left wondering why Alabama didn't try the quarterback sneak on 4th and 6 inches instead of going back to a well that was already looking pretty dry.
We saw Amari Cooper get wide open behind the Auburn secondary three times - I wonder how many more times he did it and it didn't make the TV picture because McCarron went elsewhere? In past games I would've said that was a sign that Amari would be ready for the really big games to come . . . but the really big games aren't going to come this year. Sigh.
Kevin Norwood had another nice game. He was particularly effective after the catch, and hauled in a high TD pass.
The typically sure-handed Cooper dropped a TD pass in the 4th quarter, one of numerous chances Alabama had to lock the game away in its late stages. But while there were other drops on the day, most of them were tough catches that McCarron gets at least part credit for. One in particular that was called a "drop" by the announcers actually sailed well over DeAndrew White's head after a tip.
White missed an opportunity at an early 3rd-down conversion when he caught a pass running across the field just a yard short of the first down. Instead of stopping in his tracks and falling across the first-down line he kept running straight into the arms of a tackler who stopped him with no further advance. Just one of the many ways Alabama found to fail to convert on 3rd or 4th and short.
O.J. Howard was called for a drive-killing false start and an even more damaging hold on a rare T.J. Yeldon 3rd-down run conversion in the 4th quarter, leading to Foster's last failed field goal attempt. On Howard's behalf, the holding call was holding but it was the kind of holding that is almost never called: not egregious, no effect on the outcome of the play, and a guy that Howard had solidly blocked and who wasn't going anywhere.
It sure looked good at the start, when Yeldon ran through a big hole between Shepherd and Vogler for a 31-yard gain. #79 really mauled his guy on that one. Overall, though, this was not the Tide's best run-blocking day, as Yeldon was held to 2 yards or less on 14 of his 26 carries, and Auburn got frequent penetration. Arie Kouandjio was particularly ineffective on short-yardage blocking.
Chad Lindsay was involved in both pass-protection failures. On Auburn's only sack of McCarron, Lindsay appeared to block Arie's man, actually knocking him free of Kouandjio's block, allowing him to come free for the sack. Bizarrely, it was the second time in the last three games McCarron has been sacked because one of his blockers knocked a pass-rusher free of another of his blockers. Later, Lindsay was flat-out beaten by his man who rushed McCarron into a 3rd-down incompletion that led to the blocked field goal with 2:40 left.
These guys played a lot better than you would think from looking at a stat line that reads 296 rushing yards. Auburn generally directed their runs, even the ones to the middle, away from the center of the Alabama line. A lot of Auburn's yardage came from beating guys at the 2nd level to turn short gains into long gains. On that long list of missed tackles I gave earlier, not many were by defensive linemen.
Jonathan Allen had a sack, beat his blocker to record a TFL on a run play, and spectacularly caught Tre Mason from behind on a 40-yard run. Xzavier Dickson was again steadily effective in limited time, setting Allen up for his sack by providing the initial pressure and playing off a block to make an excellent stop on Marshall on a sweep. Ed Stinson also caught Marshall from behind with a later diving stop, and tipped a 3rd-and-4 pass incomplete in the 4th quarter, leading to an Auburn punt.
C.J. Mosley made 14 tackles, his high for the year, and only got on the missed tackles honor roll once. However, C.J. misread the quarterback keeper and left his hole wide open on Marshall's 45-yard TD run to give Auburn the early lead.
Depriest played perhaps his best game of the year, with 11 tackles and, like Mosley, only one missed tackle. He stripped Marshall on an early run, although the Auburn QB fell on the ball himself, sacked Marshall inside the 5 on a 4th-quarter blitz, leading to a punt, and stoned a flat pass receiver in the backfield.
Adrian Hubbard had 6 tackles. He tripped up Marshall from the ground to record a sack and made a great play on what looked like a crucial 4th-down play midway through the 4th, fighting off a block to tackle Marshall short of the marker.
Of course the very high tackle totals reflect the fact that Auburn ran a lot of plays: 68 in total. Tide opponents were only averaging 57.2 plays a game coming in.
This is where things went south for the Tide D in a big way. Cyrus Jones is getting a lot of deserved heat today, as he had several high-profile failures, but he wasn't alone in playing poorly back there. I counted 9 missed tackles by Tide DBs, and Auburn receivers got distressingly open deep too many times (once is too many). Granted, Auburn's skill players are hard to tackle, with even sure-stopping Landon Collins getting in on the missed-tackle parade once, but 9 is a pretty high number of missed tackles from a single position group.
On Auburn's 4th play from scrimmage, Jones let his man get behind him, all alone, only to be bailed out when Marshall missed him badly. Cyrus looked like he was expecting help on that play, so there may be some question as to fault, but all you could see on TV was that there was nobody behind him and he appeared to just let the guy go so he could sit in the short zone.
A similar play developed on the other side in the 4th quarter on a 3rd and 19 from the Auburn 5 that could have turned into a 95-yard TD strike with a better throw. This time it was Deion Belue who let the guy go, but it was a little clearer than on the earlier play that the real fault probably lay with Geno Smith. The Tide was in a 3-deep and there was no apparent reason Smith should not have picked up the deep zone on his side of the field; to top it off he was the one getting the earful from Kirby Smart after the play, not Belue.
Jones and Clinton-Dix both bit on the run on Auburn's last offensive TD and got burned badly. On replay, it appeared that Coates was Jones' man and while Clinton-Dix had the opportunity to rotate over and cover him, it was not something you would ordinarily expect him to do, while Jones had no business leaving his man open to come up on a QB that hadn't crossed the line yet. Jones was in a tough spot, with Marshall looking a whole lot like a guy who was going to run, and maybe for a while - but it was still a mistake, and a hard one to forget.
In addition to missing a tackle, Collins made a more crucial mistake when he pursued over-aggressively and lost downfield contain on Marshall's first-quarter TD run. Once Marshall cut inside him, it was all over.
Collins made a very nice play to strip Mason and recover the fumble, setting up a 2nd-quarter touchdown. Deion Belue made an aggressive charge up and solid tackle for a loss on a quick out. But there's not all that much praise to be divvied out to this group.
After a magnificent season for Bama's special teams, they obviously cost the team the game Saturday.
To be sure, there were good moments. Kickoff coverage was solid throughout. Cory Mandell got off a couple of boomers, and DeAndrew White made a sensational streaking, laying-out stop on one of them. But even the dependable Mandell showed nerves by dropping the first punt for no reason - he was extremely lucky not to get that one more comprehensively blocked.
Little need be said about Cade Foster's day. Foster showed obvious nerves when he leaned early on his first attempt, leading to a hook and a respectable miss on what was otherwise a well-struck ball. His second attempt was down the middle, but after the referees didn't let it stand, apparently because Arie Kouandjio was breathing too deeply, the young man lost his stuff. His next attempt was a 30-yard banana ball, and the final one was blocked at the line of scrimmage, where it had barely cleared head level.
But the worst, the absolute worst, was the way this thing ended. You know, I think I'll mostly get over this thing soon, or at least in the fullness of time, and get back on the subject of the championships Alabama already has and the ones that are yet to come, but I'm afraid that one thing is going about this one is going to hang with me. I'm talking about the complete failure of Alabama's coaching staff to simply do its job on the last play by getting the team ready for an attempted return.
It shouldn't come as a shocking surprise when a 57-yard field goal attempt comes up a little short, and falls into the end zone. When that happens, it shouldn't come as a shocking surprise that the other team is ready for it and attempts to run it out.
Why, then, was Cody Mandell the closest thing on the field to a safety-type athlete? Even more egregiously, why did almost the entire field-goal-kicking team just stand around by the line of scrimmage until Chris Davis was already on his way out of the end zone with the ball? Especially since the line of scrimmage was on the left hashmark, shouldn't they have been coached to at least get into the middle of the field to be ready for anything? Adam Griffith, who you might expect to function as a safety, never even got to the middle of the field by the end of the return.
There ain't no two ways about it: Alabama was not expecting a field-goal return, and was not ready for it. Folks, this was not a fluke play like the one Auburn beat Georgia with. That was maybe a 1-in-1000 play. This was more like a 1-in-2 play, maybe a 2-in-3 play; in other words, with that personnel group all huddled up on one side of the field against an actual returner, Auburn had a very good chance of scoring a touchdown once Davis successfully caught the ball in the field of play. It was suicide by coaching, and I'd like to see Nick Saban, the guy in the spot where the buck stops, step up and admit it.
Still, Brian Vogler almost cut off the sideline, a move which would've at least given Mandell or somebody a prayer of stopping Davis. But Vogler tried to pace him and stay with him in hopes of making the tackle instead of getting ahead of him to be good and sure he cut him off and forced him inside. It was a fatal error; once Brian laid back for a second, Davis simply turned on the speed and beat him to the corner. Nobody else had a chance, and the pandemonium that ensued even topped what happened at the first Iron Bowl I ever attended.
That one was in 1972.