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September 7, 2009
Play-calling takes Tide into new territory
Despite it being months in the making, players weren't told until two days before Saturday's season opener that it would be the first offensive play of the season. Not only was the formation something they had never done before, but had never been part of the University of Alabama football program.
Granted, the Wildcat didn't reap many rewards during the 34-24 victory against Virginia Tech, but sure did get everyone's attention.
"It was a big surprise," sophomore running back Mark Ingram said Monday. "I was excited. It's a way to give our offense a different look and a way to get our playmakers the ball.
"If I have to throw it, I will."
Although it was the most high-profile change that Alabama unveiled at the Georgia Dome, it certainly wasn't the only one as the Crimson Tide showed more diversity in its play-calling than at any time since Nick Saban arrived in 2007.
Alabama threw deep and was successful. It tried end-arounds and had its biggest success running outside the tackles. Defensively, the Tide attacked the quarterback from just about everywhere, and overall more players were involved.
This may just be the beginning.
"With a coach like coach Saban, you never know what we're going to come with," junior cornerback Kareem Jackson said. "We have a very technical defense. (After) years of watching Coach Saban, they're going to know we're coming from everywhere and that's just one of the aspects of our defense."
Alabama outgained Virginia Tech 498 to 155, but there were other numbers just as impressive.
_ In his first start, junior quarterback Greg McElroy's 230 passing yards were more than John Parker Wilson had in any game last season (219 vs. Ole Miss).
_ If senior Roy Upchurch would have had 10 more rushing yards the offense would have had two running backs reach 100 yards against the defense that finished seventh in 2008. The last time Alabama did what was 2004 when Kenneth Darby and Ray Hudson both had 111 yards against Utah State.
_ The biggest receptions were made by players not named Julio Jones, who was double-covered most of the game and still led the Tide in receptions (four, 46 yards).
_ Defensively, the 155 yards allowed were fewer than any opponent totaled last year (158 by Western Kentucky and Arkansas State). Meanwhile, the five sacks were the most since Middle Tennessee State in 2005.
"We had stuff they had never seen on our defense as well," senior linebacker Cory Reamer said. "You could kind of tell they were surprised on both sides of the ball. That's what we were going for, and was huge for us."
The personnel changes were noteworthy too. According to the participation chart, the Tide played 49 players, some just so the Tide could add in a new wrinkle of some sort. For example, in addition to starting tight ends Colin Peek and Brad Smelley, Preston Dial and Michael Williams also saw significant playing time. Mike McCoy may not have had a reception, but threw a hard block that was impossible to ignore. Coaches are trying to get Terry Grant involved, and Monday had him working out at wide receiver when reporters were allowed to observe.
Those are the kinds of things that were characteristic of LSU when Saban had the Tigers challenging for titles. So was offensive flexibility, even though the Wildcat had yet to be popularized.
"(It's) tough to defend because it creates another gap on defense," Saban said.
Everybody's developing their ways to try and defend this, and I also think people are expanding what they do in this to try and take advantage of that.
"Defenses will probably catch up with it and once that happens not as many people will probably do it."
One of the things Tech did well, especially early in the game was take away the short pass, and essentially dare Alabama to go deep. The Tide connected early with the 35-yard reception to junior Darius Hanks, but sophomore Marquis Maze's 48-yard reception turned the momentum Alabama's way for good and helped open up the run.
"I think the vertical passing game was there all night, it just took off when we made some plays when the opportunities presented themselves," McElroy said. "Really, we like to stretch the field with our receivers and it's one of my strengths as a quarterback."
Actually, the Maze play was designed to go to a tight end with him running a corner route. But when beat his man off the line and was in single coverage, he kept going.
"We have guys who are capable of explosive plays, and that's one of our goals as an offense and something we have to encourage during the course of the season," McElroy continued. "We have all the confidence in those guys getting off the press and getting downfield. Maze obviously did against No. 17, who we knew we could take advantage of in a deep post situation, and Hanks did the same thing. They came up in press coverage, he went to the outside and slipped underneath and kept it right at the hash. When you have guys who are beating defenders like that, as badly as they were beating them, it makes my life pretty easy, just throw over the outside shoulder."