Even in the Game of the Century, when you play not to lose you usually do. That should be the lesson to Alabama Coach Nick Saban and the brain trust in Tuscaloosa.
The Alabama defense did everything it was asked to do. It shut down the LSU power running game. It frustrated the resurgent Jarrett Lee by picking off two passes and continuing a string of miserable performances against the Crimson Tide. It kept the Tigers out of the end zone—a feat not accomplished by an SEC team since the Gerry DiNardo era. The best way to beat Alabama is to have your offense sustain multiple long scoring drives, and Alabama’s defense was simply too strong to let that happen.
But the offense came with a milquetoast game plan that was so conservative, the Tea Party Express may seek to nominate Nick Saban for President, and this exposed the only fundamental weakness the of the 2011 Tide—special teams. If Alabama makes any of the three field goal attempts of the first half, there is no overtime and Alabama is on the winning side of a 9-6 score at the end of regulation. But why not take a chance and avoid having to line up for the kick at all?
Alabama’s very first possession started with Trent Richardson exploiting the weakside bubble for 40 yards in two plays and a first down at the LSU 35. With the Tiger defense reeling, the opportunity for a strike to the end zone is there for the taking. Three conservative plays later, the field goal unit trots onto the field and comes up empty. The second possession was a slightly longer replay of the first—Alabama was successful moving the ball in the first few snaps, only to go conservative as soon as the team was on the outer limits of the kickers’ limit. Two missed field goals and a blocked attempt later, Bama finally got on the board with a 34-yard field goal on 4th and 8.
With the defense refusing to let LSU’s offense get into any rhythm, the opportunities for big plays were there in the first half, but Alabama’s coaches wouldn’t take the chances. Big games call for taking risks and making big plays. Take those chances, make one or two of those big plays and the possibility of breaking the game open is there. Break the game open, and you raise the chances that the opposing coaches start taking risks. I like Bama’s chances against a risk-taking Les Miles a lot better than I do against The Hat not having to do anything special.
Ultimately, it was the poor special teams play of Alabama—and the exceptional special teams play by LSU—that decided the outcome of the game. The Alabama coaching staff had to know what the team’s greatest weakness was and had to know what to do to minimize the impact of that weakness. Instead, conservative offense put the special teams in the spotlight and allowed LSU to hang in there.
Champions play to win. When they don’t play to win and end up getting beaten—even by a better team—then there are no excuses.
Extra Point: I thought Tom Ritter’s crew of officials got most calls right. The Eric Reid interception call was a coin-flip call. It could have gone either way, and the replay wasn’t conclusive enough to reverse the call on the field. However, the flagrant horse collar foul on Tyran Mathieu againt Dre Kirkpatrick was bad enough to warrant an ejection and a suspension from the league. I don’t care how big this game is or how high emotions are running. That kind of play has no place in the SEC and there should have been consequences beyond the yardage step-off.