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January 3, 2011

Upon Further Review: Capital One Bowl

Perhaps there should have been a pregame announcement Saturday at Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium.

"Ladies and gentlemen, today the role of the lions shall be played by the University of Alabama football team, while victim-like Michigan State has traveled far to be (insert favorite word for dismantled here) here for your amusement.

"Ok, throw them in."

While there's no truth to the rumor that the next Michigan State player to go in at quarterback was hiding under the stands, no one would have blamed him after watching the way junior starter Kirk Cousins and freshman sacrifice, err, backup Andrew Maxwell took hit after hit before being knocked out of the game.

Consequently, both they and Crimson Tide senior quarterback Greg McElroy spent most of the fourth quarter on their respective sidelines while Alabama finished off the impressive 49-7 victory. As McElroy was receiving congratulations and enjoying some final on-field moments with his teammates, Cousins, who had been sidelined with a headache and back issues from being used as a crash-test dummy, tracked down all the senior Spartans.

"I found over and over again these seniors that I went to thank them for their effort were all guys who were overachieved from what they were expected to do," he said. "That's the reason we've had the success we've had this season."

While No. 15 Alabama (10-3) felt like it underachieved somewhat this season and No. 7 Michigan State (11-2), the co-Big Ten champions, overachieved, things certainly balanced out in Orlando.

Here are the awards:

Play of the game: Junior linebacker Courtney Upshaw's blindside sack and forced fumble that was recovered for a 30-yard loss to knock Michigan State out of field-goal range essentially killed any hope of a comeback. While Alabama scored on its next two possessions and then at the start of the second half for a 35-0 lead, the Spartans had three straight three-and-outs. Upshaw was unblocked on the play because the offensive tackle picked up blitzing freshman linebacker C.J. Mosley.

Player(s) of the game: Junior defensive end Marcell Dareus and Upshaw were simply too much for Michigan State's offensive line to handle and were seemingly in the backfield on every play. They combined for eight tackles including five for a loss, three sacks, three hurries and a forced fumble. Dareus also had the pressure on sophomore safety Robert Lester's interception.

Hit of the game: Upshaw's sack gets the nod, but among the numerous honorable mentions were Upshaw's hits on running back Larry Caper and Cousins (on his 36-yard completion) and McElroy's epic block on junior wide receiver Julio Jones' rushing touchdown.

Statistic of the game: Michigan State, which coming in was averaging 168.8 rushing yards per game, finished with minus-48.

Did you notice? The Spartans had more players helped off the field than points scored. There were also more Capital One logos on the field, 11. Also, Alabama had more tackles for a loss (10) and quarterback hurries (five) than Michigan State had completed passes (14).

Here are 10 other notable things from the Capital One Bowl:

Passing numbers: McElroy completed 13 of 17 passes (76.5 percent) with no interceptions, so he finished his career without a pickoff in his last three games and 68 attempts. The 204.59 passer rating was his third best of the season (Georgia State 245.82 and San Jose State) and as a senior he completed 70.9 percent of his passes, up from 60.9 last year. He was five-for-5 on third downs, of which on three is was third-and-3 or less. He completed both attempts in the red zone. Redshirt freshman A.J. McCarron completed all six attempts including two on third down.

Mark Barron's absence: One would think that Michigan State might go after the person replacing an injured All-American safety, right? Wrong. While MSU quarterbacks obviously didn't have much time due to Alabama's ferocious pass rush, the only attempt to a receiver covered by sophomore Will Lowery was intercepted. The walk-on finished with three tackles. MSU fared better going after true freshman Jarrick Williams, who took Lowery's spot in dime coverage. He twice looked lost on Michigan's State's opening drive, helping lead to two third-down conversions, but settled down.

Role playing: Take away redshirt freshman running back Eddie Lacy's 62-yard touchdown up the middle, and Alabama's longest run was by a wide receiver while the best reception was arguably by a running back. Jones' 35-yard end-around for a touchdown was highlighted by McElroy's block on safety Trenton Robinson, but the play almost didn't work when senior left tackle James Carpenter nearly got beat off the snap only to take out two defenders. On Ingram turning a 6-yard sideline catch into a 30-yard gain he broke tackles from linebacker Jon Misch, safety Marcus Hyde, cornerback Chris Rucker, Robinson and linebacker Eric Gordon before nose tackle Blake Treadwell finally stopped him at the 6. Hyde in particular had a rough day, being run over by Ingram and sophomore running back Trent Richardson on touchdown runs. Incidentally, of the three potential first-round draft picks, Darues had the best final play, a sack, while both Ingram and Jones were pulled after limping off the field.

First downs: Alabama's domination may have been best reflected on first downs. Defensively, the Crimson Tide's goal was to shut down the run, which in essence would also nullify the play-action and make the Spartans one-dimensional. They were more like no-dimensional. Before senior tight end Charlie Gantt's 34-yard reception, Michigan State had executed 14 plays on first downs for minus-8 yards. It still finished with 20 first-down plays for 44 yards (2.2 average). In comparison, Alabama had 31 first-down plays for 292 yards (9.4) and three touchdowns. Oh, and the Tide converted six of its first seven third-down opportunities, the one omission when it ran out the clock before halftime.

Review of the fumble: It was a tough call, but the replay official was probably correct to overturn sophomore linebacker Nico Johnson's fumble return for a touchdown. The ball never seemed to be clearly in the possession of junior tight end Brian Linthicum, which a camera from the Alabama side caught. Regardless, Lester made a terrific hit to knock the ball out.

The opening drive: Although it had two false start penalties and was aided by a pass-interference penalty, the opening drive was statistically Alabama's best of the season. It was the longest in number of plays, yards and time of possession.

Here's how Alabama's opening drives went this season:

Opponent, plays-yards, time, outcome
San Jose State 8-71, 3:22, Richardson 4-yard touchdown run
Penn State 5-19, 2:13, punt
Duke 3-60, 1:25, Darius Hanks 9-yard touchdown reception
Arkansas 3-(minus-2), 1:35, punt
Florida 11-68, 5:32, Jeremy Shelley 28-yard field goal
South Carolina 9-54, 4:28, Shelley 32-yard field goal
Ole Miss 11-46, 4:34, Preston Dial 7-yard touchdown reception
Tennessee 5-18, 2:42, punt
LSU 3-3, 0:59, punt
Mississippi State 9-59, 3:05, Shelley 36-field goal
Georgia State 8-67, 3:19, Jones 8-yard touchdown reception
Auburn 7-71, 3:26, Ingram 9-yard touchdown run
Michigan State 13-79, 6:45, Ingram 1-yard touchdown

Explosive plays: Alabama had nine explosive plays and six big plays. The surprising part of that is that the Tide only had three explosive runs, two of which could classify as big. As a reminder, Coach Nick Saban defines a big gain as a run of 16 yards or more or a pass of 21 yards or more, and an explosive play a run of 13 yards or more or a pass of 17 yards or more. It was the highest number of explosive plays since Duke (12) and most big plays since Tennessee (six). The defense gave up four explosive/big plays, all passes.

Special teams: Think Alabama might invest in a new kicking tee for freshman Cade Foster this offseason? Freshman Cody Mandell only had two punts, both in the second half, but was laid out on the second when while trying to help with the containment never saw the blocker to his left. After averaging roughly two field-goal attempts per game the Crimson Tide didn't have one Saturday and neither did Michigan State. Richardson may have seen his last duty on kick coverage, and was pulled for junior Demetrius Goode after being double-teamed. Junior Phelon Jones also replaced junior DeQuan Menzie on the same unit before reserves were rewarded with playing time in the second half.

Penalties: Alabama only drew three flags with redshirt freshman tackle D.J. Fluker and sophomore guard Chance Warmack called for false starts on the opening drive. Sophomore cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick's personal foul for making a hit out-of-bounds really didn't make sense considering that he drove the Michigan State defender into the bench area. The Crimson Tide could have been called for a block to the back during junior receiver Marquis Maze's 17-yard punt return. The intentional grounding penalty on the Spartans was pretty questionable, but the Big 12 crew gave them the benefit of doubt two plays later.

Season numbers: Alabama didn't use the wildcat formation, finishing with 47 rushing plays for 213 yards (4.5 average), and one pass completed for 19 yards.

Here are two other categories of unofficial statistics:

DROPPED PASSES
By our count Jones led the team with nine drops, one of which was pretty questionable, five after he sustained a broken hand, but he didn't have one during the final four games.

J. Jones 9
Ingram 2
M. Maze 2
T. Richardson 2
P. Dial 1
D. Hanks 1
E. Lacy 1
K. Norwood 1
M. Williams 1

YARDS AFER THE CATCH
Jones had twice as many yards as anyone else.

J. Jones 591
M. Maze 279
T. Richardson 276
M. Ingram 270
D. Hanks 225
P. Dial 89
E. Alexander 27
K. Norwood 25
M. Williams 25
B. Smelley 21
K. Bell 15
B. Gibson 14
D. Goode 14
E. Lacy 13
C. Underwood 7
Total: 1,635


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