With second-year head coach Mike Shula calling the shots in Tuscaloosa, Ala., the Alabama Crimson Tide offense
looks like it has taken a trip down memory lane to a time when football was
football, and a passing game was something that the sissies on the West Coast
used because they couldn’t figure out how to run the ball.
Welcome to the 2004 edition of the
Tide, ladies and gentlemen: leave your modern football notions at the door, and
watch where you step – just follow your blockers and you’ll be all
Heading into the 2004 season, the
buzz emanating from Bryant-Denny Stadium was that this Crimson Tide team was one
of the most talented in years, but had a critical Achilles heel that could be
exposed by any team willing to hit it hard enough in the right place.
But a funny thing happened on the
way to Death
Valley. One by one, Alabama players at critical positions found
themselves watching the game from the bench, sidelined with injury.
And game by game, the Tide kept
winning. And winning. And winning.
It wasn’t always pretty, but as any
coach will tell you, a win is a win, and in the highly competitive Southeastern
Conference, any victory is a precious commodity.
Those victories, six in all, have
Alabama bowl eligible as it heads to Baton Rouge to take on the
No. 17 LSU Tigers, in a clash the nation will see live on ESPN.
But just what will the nation
Odds are, they will see Spencer Pennington, formerly the Tide’s third-string quarterback, handing the ball off
to Kenneth Darby, formerly the third-string tailback. They will then see Darby
follow former second-string fullback McLain through a hole in the offensive line
created by mammoth first-team All-SEC tackle Wesley Britt. And they will see
that play repeated over, and over, and over again, until fans in the stands
start wondering how big Shula’s playbook really is.
But merely knowing what Alabama will throw at you
offensively does not necessarily mean you will be able to stop them. Bear Bryant
would readily tell you that, as will the half-dozen teams the Crimson-clad
battering ram has defeated so far this season – most recently the Mississippi State Bulldogs, who knocked off the Florida Gators and the Kentucky Wildcats in
successive weeks, only to see Darby rush for 150 yards and one touchdown on 19
carries in the first half alone en route to Alabama’s bowl-qualifying victory on
That news should come as sweet
relief for LSU fans who have had this date circled on their calendars since
before the first bye week. Tiger cornerbacks Corey Webster and Travis Daniels,
who have come under fire at times this season for their surprisingly pedestrian
play on the field, will not be called upon to work much against the Tide, with
the exception of locking down a reverse sweep or two. When Pennington does drop
back to pass, however, Webster and Daniels’ eyes should light up – the young
signal caller is still going through growing pains under center, and has a
tendency to complete passes to the other team at an alarming rate, a large
reason the running game is once again featured so prominently in the Alabama
Tiger fans will also be treated to
a sight they have not seen since the 2003 season when the Crimson Tide take the
field on Saturday night, one that Webster and Daniels will be able to appreciate
more than any of the 92,000 people sitting in the stands.
The nation’s top-ranked
A staple LSU rode all the way to a
national championship in 2003, the crown of best in Division I-A now rests on
the heads of the Alabama defense, a unit that has held three of its last five
opponents under 200 yards of total offense.
The Tide defensive playbook looks
to have been lifted directly from the one the Tigers used in 2003 too, as it
follows almost exactly the same modus operandi. The four man mountains on the
defensive line treat opposing offensive linemen like bowling pins, and knock
them to the ground on their way to the quarterback. The unit is so good at
applying pressure, needing usually to only bring one extra pass rusher into
play, the rest of the defense can sit back in coverage and wait for a hurried
pass to be thrown up into the air, where its exact landing point becomes little
more than a lottery pick – and where any receiver who is lucky enough to catch
it is almost inevitably brought to the ground by three, four, sometimes even
The Crimson Tide defense could well
spell disaster for LSU in Tiger Stadium, and that is without looking at the
Tigers recent history of losses to Alabama in the capital city. LSU will be
sending two quarterbacks in against the Tide, both of whom have a tendency to
get rattled and throw ill-advised passes when hurried. The experienced
secondary will be working against a purple and gold receiving corps still wet
behind the ears, with its most experienced regular starter, sophomore Dwayne Bowe, suffering from an inexplicable recent inability to catch even the most
straightforward pass. The running game has also had its share of problems this
season, averaging close to 80 yards per game on the ground against top
twenty-ranked defenses, compared to 170 yards per game in 2003.
All of this does not bode well for
the 6-2 Tigers, but beyond the numbers the matchup does not look nearly as dire.
Bulldog quarterback Omarr Connor was able to scramble for big gains against the
Tide defense, something LSU signal caller Marcus Randall – who undoubtedly
throws the ball and runs better than his Mississippi State counterpart – will have taken note
of. While the Alabama secondary has had few problems
shutting receivers down this year, they have not yet faced an array as talented,
or as deep, as the group that roams the Tiger sidelines. As for the running
game, the Tiger tailbacks are anything but one-dimensional, as they can line up
– in sophomore running back Alley Broussard’s words – a Ford diesel truck
(himself), a Porsche (Justin Vincent), an El Camino (Joseph Addai) or a
Mitsubishi Miata (Shyrone Carey).
The task facing the Tigers is
therefore fairly straightforward: overcome the post-bye week sluggishness that
usually plagues them, find holes in the relatively untested Alabama defense, and stop
Kenneth Darby when he is carrying the ball, and Tyrone Prothro when he is
We will find out on Saturday night
how easy it is to turn theory into practice though, as he 2004 Crimson Tide are,
in this case, your father’s Crimson Tide.
And, as any Alabama fan worth his
salt will tell you, those Bear Bryant teams could play some football.