It’s somewhat laughable to consider that one of the Crimson Tide’s all-time great and future NFL MVP was at one time an afterthought, a mere prospect, the third-string back on a team that featured the power running game upon which head coach Gene Stallings leaned.
But that is exactly what Shaun Alexander was on the bus trip to Baton Rouge on November 9, 1996. He was a vaunted prospect to be sure, but a prospect nonetheless, locked on the depth chart behind lead-horse Dennis Riddle and the oft-injured-but-well-regarded veteran Curtis Alexander. However, that night the aura of “prospect” dissolved, as he stepped on the big stage and savaged a stout LSU defense in a record-setting performance that would serve to presage his future greatness at Alabama and beyond.
Coming into the game, the stakes were relatively high in the SEC race. Alabama was coming off its lone loss of the season to hated-rival Tennessee but remained ranked 10th nationally in the AP poll. LSU was a mere step behind them at 11th, with their only defeat coming at the hands of Steve Spurrier and his top-ranked Gators. The 1996 LSU squad marked the high-water mark of the Gerry DiNardo tenure to that point, and Alabama, though not to the championship form of recent seasons, was still in contention for a potential SEC Championship.
LSU, under second-year defensive coordinator Carl Reese, had put together a scrappy, talented defense that, while not impermeable, had proven above-average against the run against previous SEC foes. At that point, no one who followed college football had any doubts about the preferred method of offensive dispatch employed by Stallings and OC Woody McCovery…they wanted to aggressively run the ball out of two-back sets behind huge tight ends and a talented line that fielded several future NFL linemen (including Hall of Fame tackle Chris Samuels). Alabama would run power sweeps and off-tackle relentlessly, and they would lean on the effectiveness of a stellar defense and ball-control offense to allow opponents to become fatigued (sound familiar?)
Granted the lack of strategical mystery, LSU’s defense held serve in the first set, as neither team could crack the other’s code in the first quarter. Riddle had seen his share of carries (he finished with 15 for 95 yards), and Curtis Alexander was dinged up and used more as a receiver than back. That set the stage for an increased role for the younger Alexander, and he took advantage of the opportunity to full effect.
Early in the second, less than two minutes into the quarter, on a standard down-standard set running play, Alexander showed a flash of what was to come in his storied career: in short, he made the mundane look spectacular. On second down from the 17-yard line, Alexander took a handoff from Tide quarterback Freddie Kitchens and broke left towards the sideline on a well-blocked power sweep. He got the blocking he needed, to be sure, but it was his patience and square-shouldered technique that allowed him to slip to the edge, round the end, and punch forward with his sneaky-fast speed to squirt down the sideline for the first score of the game. The Tide went up by a score thanks to Alexander’s execution, and as a result, Stallings and McCovery kept feeding him.
After the half, it became obvious the Tigers were becoming weary of the physical whipping they were taking at the point of attack. Alabama’s line, which in 1996 consisted of the likes of center John Causey, tackles Samuels and Pete DiMario, and guards Will Friend and Laron White, was beginning to have its way with LSU’s thin defensive front, opening lanes in the LSU defense that had been heretofore hard to come by.
Earlier in the game, the Tide had made a point of roughing up the perimeters of LSU’s front seven, which was the perfect set-up for a counterpunch up the middle at the eight-minute mark of the third. Again, taking a handoff from Kitchens, Alexander followed fullback Ed Scissum up the gut and slashed with agility through the defensive front before bounding outside and using his speed. Alexander wasn’t a burner, but rather was a smooth, instinctual runner with vision and stealthy speed. He didn’t look like a track star, but rather a race horse, with a long, steady gait and exemplary balance. He was incredibly smooth once he reached the edge and bent the corner, gliding past defenders like a pat of butter slipping over a hot iron griddle. In this instance, after flexing his speed on the edge, Alexander made one brutal hitch-back to turn the final defender backwards just before crossing the goal line. The 73-yard sprint gave Alabama a commanding 13-0 lead (after a missed PAT, of course), and with a Bama defense that appeared unwilling to cede any ground to the Bayou Bengals, the Tide appeared to be in the driver’s seat in Baton Rouge.
But Alexander had gas left in the tank, striking once again before the quarter ended on a third-down off-tackle romp through the LSU defense for another score from 72 yards out. The play was textbook: DiMario sealed his defender inside, while tight end Patrick Hape kicked out to create a lane. Scissum bounced towards the hole and found a linebacker who had slipped through, blocking him back and out of the play. Alexander immediately sensed the hole and hit it with authority, and he needed no additional blocking thanks to an impressive 73-yard scoring sprint which saw him run past (and away from) defensive backs who could only watch as he sped by like a streaking stallion. The Tide led 20-0 going into the fourth quarter.
The Bama offense ended their scoring on the night the same way it began…with a power sweep to Alexander. The obviously-exhausted running back benefitted from properly-executed blocking and an equally-exhausted defensive line, as he needed only one explosive step outside the pulling guard to get the edge and scamper over the goal line, where he collapsed onto his back momentarily after capping his record-breaking performance.
The statistical record of Alexander’s breakout performance remains impressive, even in this day of offensive explosiveness and innovation. With a quarterback who only threw for 61 yards, and a fellow running back in Riddle, who himself accounted for 95 yards in the game, Alexander was nonetheless the heartbeat of the Tide’s dominant offensive performance.
Alexander finished the night with a school-record 291 yards and four touchdowns on 20 carries. That’s an average of 14.6 yards per carry…against an SEC run defense. The feat is even more impressive when one considers that despite the workload, the predictable smashmouth nature of the Stallings offense, and the apparent total lack of passing prowess, Alexander was stopped for a loss only once in the game…for a single yard.
When the night was over, it was clear Alexander was no longer a prospect. He was simply the best athlete on the field on that night: faster, stronger, more resilient than anyone else against whom he competed. He had arrived, a warrior-king on the field, the Tiger defenders merely pawns in a game he was playing.
Though that night in Baton Rouge sounded the clarion call for the coming of the Tide’s next great running back, his reign of terror over opposing defenses was deferred by the resignation of St. Gene and the apparent obstinacy (or sheer dim-wittedness) of his successor Mike DuBose, as the latter allowed Alexander to ride the bench for much of the 1997 season. However, greatness cannot be bottled up nor held in stasis by the foolish, and Alexander continued his rise to prominence in 1998 as one of the nation’s running backs. He went on to a potent MVP career in The League as Seattle’s premier running back, winning the 2005 MVP Award and leading the Seahawks in a failed Super Bowl bid that same season.
But on that night in November, on the supposedly voodoo-imbibed field in Death Valley (at night, mind you), Shaun Alexander proved himself the SEC’s most dangerous rusher by slaughtering the Tiger defense on national television. Had Stallings remained at the Capstone for the remainder of the tenure of Alexander and Samuels, one can’t help but speculate that Mark Ingram may have been the Tide’s second Heisman winner.
(If words aren’t your thing…you know, you’re the more “visual” type, follow this link for every touchdown scored by Alexander on that fateful night. Old-school man ball at its finest, folks.)