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August 31, 2008

Wilson carries Alabama to win over Clemson

Alabama 34, Clemson 10: Recap | Box score | Photos

ATLANTA Nearly all the preseason attention surrounding Alabama focused on its top-ranked recruiting class, but the Crimson Tide's chances of competing for a SEC championship rest primarily on the right shoulder of senior quarterback John Parker Wilson.

And that suddenly doesn't seem like such a scary prospect to Alabama fans.

Wilson opened the final chapter of his college career Saturday by guiding Alabama to a stunningly easy 34-10 triumph over Clemson at the Georgia Dome. He threw two touchdown passes, ran for a third score and didn't turn the ball over. In short, he hardly resembled the guy whose inconsistency down the stretch last year caused Alabama to lose its last four regular-season games.

"We came out with a different mind-set," said Wilson, who went 22 of 30 for 180 yards. "We really wanted to take care of the ball. Making good decisions was a big focus. I think I did that."

Wilson's mistake-free performance made him the unlikely star of a game in which all the offensive firepower supposedly was on the other sideline. Clemson boasted the ACC preseason player of the year in quarterback Cullen Harper plus the nation's most celebrated tailback tandem in James Davis and C.J. Spiller.

Alabama made them all look rather ordinary Saturday. Harper was sacked three times and failed to get the Tigers into the end zone, while the so-called "Thunder and Lightning" backfield couldn't even produce a drizzle. Clemson finished the game with zero rushing yards on 14 carries.

While Clemson's offensive stars were non-factors, Wilson finally began to play like a guy on the verge of becoming the leading career passer at one of the nation's most storied programs.

Wilson owns Alabama's single-season records for total offense, pass attempts, completions, passing yards and touchdown passes. Wilson set one more school record Saturday with his 489th career completion, and he almost certainly will end his career with most of the Tide's major career passing records.

Alabama 34, Clemson 10
Alabama held Clemson to zero rushing yards and breezed to the victory in the opener for both at the Georgia Dome. Alabama's Mark Ingram and Glen Coffee outrushed the more heralded Clemson tandem of James Davis and C.J. Spiller 186-20. Clemson's only touchdown came on Spiller's 96-yard return of the second-half kickoff.
Alabama QB John Parker Wilson threw two touchdown passes, ran for a third score and didn't commit a turnover. Wilson went 22 of 30 for 180 yards.
Alabama's front seven on defense should split this award for the way the Tide held Davis and Spiller in check. None of Alabama's starting linemen or linebackers had more than three tackles, but they all played a big role in shutting down Clemson's rushing attack and forcing the Tigers to throw for most of the second half.
The first carry of the season for Clemson didn't go to Davis or Spiller. The ball instead went to true freshman Jamie Harper, who fumbled it away at Clemson's 31. That turnover led to an Alabama field goal and set the tone for Clemson's dismal performance.
Clemson defensive tackle Ricky Sapp and guard Barry Humphries sat out the second half with knee injuries. Sapp is expected to be fine, but Humphries' status remains uncertain. Clemson wide receiver Jacoby Ford left the game with a mild concussion. Alabama offensive tackle Andre Smith sprained a knee midway through the third quarter, but his injury isn't considered serious.
Alabama senior kicker Leigh Tiffin's career-long 54-yard field goal in the first quarter was the longest successful field goal against Clemson since 1985. It was the third-longest field goal in Alabama history. Clemson's Jimmy Maners ranked 20th in the nation in punting last season, but he was beaten out in the preseason by true freshman Dawson Zimmerman, who averaged 40 yards on his four punts. Spiller's 96-yard return of the second-half kickoff was his third career kickoff return for a touchdown and his 11th career touchdown of at least 50 yards. Clemson wide receiver Aaron Kelly made his 168th reception in the fourth quarter, which made him the Tigers' career leader.
Yet all those achievements have been overshadowed by the most important record of all the Tide's 13-13 mark the past two seasons with Wilson as the starter. But even though he might have been flying a bit under the radar heading into this game, Wilson certainly had caught the attention of his teammates.

"During the offseason he was very focused on what he was doing," senior free safety Rashad Johnson said. "He had a vision of the way he wanted to play. During summer workouts, 7-on-7s and things, you could always tell the little things he was doing differently. He'd come to me afterward and say, 'Could you read my eyes? Did I hold (the ball) too long?' ''

Wilson wanted to avoid the problems that led to Alabama's topsy-turvy 2007 season, when his performance level was at one of two extremes.

He was very, very good. Or he was very, very bad.

Wilson threw four touchdown passes last September when the Tide rallied past Arkansas 41-38 in the first signature victory of Nick Saban's tenure. Wilson went 32 of 46 for 363 yards and three touchdowns in a 41-17 rout of Tennessee that improved Alabama's record to 6-2.

He had Alabama poised to take control of the SEC Western Division race against LSU when it all started to fall apart. Wilson threw three touchdown passes in the LSU game, but he also went 14 of 40 and lost a fumble that led to the winning touchdown in the Tigers' 41-34 victory.

Then things really started to go south.

Over the next three weeks, Wilson threw five interceptions and only one touchdown pass as the Tide fell to Mississippi State, Louisiana-Monroe and Auburn. A month that began with hopes of winning the division ended with a four-game losing streak. Instead of heading to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game, the Tide spent the holidays in Shreveport for a second consecutive Independence Bowl appearance.

The arrival of new offensive coordinator Jim McElwain should allow Wilson to close his career in a much more prestigious bowl. Alabama hired McElwain from Fresno State, where he helped make Tom Brandstater one of the nation's most improved quarterbacks last season. After throwing 14 interceptions and 13 touchdowns in 2006, Brandstater threw 15 touchdown passes with only five interceptions last year in his lone season with McElwain. Brandstater's progress helped Fresno State improve from 4-8 in 2006 to 9-4 in '07.

"He's just a good coach," Wilson said. "The way he comes out and teaches and interacts with us as quarterbacks, it's just a very comfortable environment for us. He's helped me out tremendously."

The results were obvious Saturday. Wilson didn't deliver quite as many fireworks as he provided against Arkansas or Tennessee last season, but he also avoided the critical mistakes that haunted the Tide against LSU and Louisiana-Monroe.

"You could just see it in his eyes," senior center Antoine Caldwell said. "He had a whole other confident-leader attitude out there in the huddle. When guys see that out of you, it calms everybody down. It lets you know, 'Hey, we're going to be in this ballgame no matter what.' We took advantage of that."

Wilson didn't try to force a pass that might have resulted in a momentum-changing interception. He just took what the defense gave him and utilized his teammates, who proved more than up to the task.

Mark Ingram and Glen Coffee each rushed for at least 90 yards. Julio Jones, the nation's top receiver and No. 4 overall prospect in the 2008 recruiting class, scored his first career touchdown when he hauled in a 4-yard pass late in the third quarter. Wilson also benefited from an Alabama defense that physically dominated Clemson at the line of scrimmage.

All that talent around him prevented Wilson from trying to do too much on his own.

"We feel pretty good right now," Wilson said. "It's still early. We've still got a long way to go, (but) we've got a group of guys here that can do it. If we stick together and just grind it out, I think we've got something special here."

If the defense plays this well and Wilson keeps avoiding mistakes, the Tide might even build something special enough to have them back at the Georgia Dome for the SEC Championship Game.

It sure would beat another holiday in Shreveport.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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