Posted on | January 1, 2016 | 29 Comments
Alabama’s Tim Williams sacks Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook.
Thursday afternoon, my son Jefferson and I were watching #1 Clemson beat #4 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, and we began to discuss the upcoming Cotton Bowl game between #2 Alabama and #3 Michigan State. My father graduated at Tuscaloosa in the Class of 1951, and I was raised on ‘Bama football during the era when the Crimson Tide was coached by the immortal Bear Bryant. One of my earliest football memories is watching the Green Bay Packers in the famous 1967 “Ice Bowl” NFL championship game and. when Bart Starr scored the winning touchdown, my dad saying, “That’s Bart Starr! He’s a ‘Bama boy!” Then, of course, there was Joe Namath’s famous “guarantee” victory in Super Bowl III — another ‘Bama boy. Dad used to get tickets to the games, and I spent many Saturdays at Legion Field in Birmingham cheering the Tide.
Somehow, the ‘Bama games I attended that particularly stand out in memory are the defeats. In 1981, Georgia Tech beat us 24-21 — a real heartbreaker. Alabama and Tech used to be bitter rivals (mentioned in the ‘Bama fight song), but in the ’60s, Tech left the SEC and there was a 15-year interval before the rivalry was renewed. The 1981 game was a sellout and Dad couldn’t get tickets from ‘Bama, so we got them through our cousin Dan Post, a Tech alumnus. This meant we were seated in the middle of a bunch of Yellow Jacket fans, which made for an uncomfortable afternoon, especially because Robert Lavette ran all over us for two touchdowns. The other ‘Bama defeat that stands out in memory was the 1988 Hall of Fame Bowl in Tampa against Michigan. Dad got four tickets, so me, my two brothers and my brother’s wife went. Alabama fell behind 14-3 at halftime, and the Tide made a strong comeback , going ahead 24-21 on a Bobby Humphrey TD with less than four minutes left to play, but ended up losing 28-24. What I can never forget about that game was the Michigan fight song. It seemed like the Michigan band played that damned song every time their team so much as completed a pass. There is perhaps no experience in football more agonizing than to be playing Michigan, and losing, and having to hear their band blast out “Hail to the Victors” over and over and over.
Being born and bred ‘Bama, so to speak, I’ve raised my sons to be Crimson Tide fans, and shared with them the family lore. Dad used to say it was hard to be an Alabama fan because everybody wants to beat ‘Bama. There is never an easy week for Alabama, because every team on their schedule, no matter how lowly, is going to go all-out in hopes of upsetting the mighty Tide. Alabama has won 15 national championships and had 10 undefeated seasons, and expectations are always so high in Tuscaloosa that to lose even one game just ruins the whole year. Every Saturday, the Tide takes the field against an opponent totally fired up and dreaming of an upset, and this year ‘Bama lost to Ole Miss 43-37 in a game marred by five turnovers. It was an agonizing game for a Tide fan to watch and, because Ole Miss is an SEC West opponent, the consequences of that defeat were potentially devastating for Alabama’s hopes of a conference championship. That loss meant that, in order for the Crimson Tide to make it to the SEC title game, they would have to win the rest of their conference games and Ole Miss would have to lose twice to SEC opponents. And what were the odds of that?
Well, miracles happened. Ole Miss lost to Florida 38-10, and then in November, they lost a wild 53-52 overtime game to Arkansas, the same day Alabama beat LSU 30-16. What had seemed impossible just six weeks earlier had become a reality — Alabama controlled its own destiny, with a shot at the SEC title and, perhaps, even the National Championship. Ranked as low as #13 after the loss to Ole Miss, the Crimson Tide rose to #4 after beating LSU. Finishing the regular season strong with a 29-13 win over Auburn, and beating Florida 29-15 in the SEC Championship game, the Crimson Tide then saw junior running back Derrick Henry win the Heisman Trophy, and faced Michigan State in the BCS semifinal on New Year’s Eve.
So there we were Thursday afternoon in the McCain family living room, watching Clemson play Oklahoma. I was on the sofa, holding my 4-month-old grandson Alexander,. My 17-year-old son Jefferson was cuddled up on the love seat with his girlfriend Jade, and we started talking about a Clemson-Alabama matchup for the national title.
“Well, Michigan State’s gonna be tough,” I said, mentioning that the Spartans had defeated Ohio State, last year’s national champion.
To this my son replied, quite astutely, that Coach Nick Saban is college football’s most cunning analyst of game videos and he had had three weeks to watch video of Michigan State.
“True — if they’ve got a weakness, Saban will find it,” I said, but with memories of that error-plagued Ole Miss game haunting me, I added, “Bama has got to execute. No fumbles, no dropped passes, no missed tackles, no penalties.”
Clemson had trailed Oklahoma 17-16 at halftime, but in the second half, the Tigers took control, winning decisively 37-17. Watching this impressive performance by the undefeated No. 1 team, I said to Jefferson, “Clemson’s tough, but I think ‘Bama matches up pretty good with them, if we can just win tonight. What would be good, though” — and here I expressed a fond hope — “is if we can just dominate Michigan State. Beat the hell out of them and send a message to Clemson.”
Alabama’s Jake Coker had his best game ever Thursday.
What was brilliant was that Saban, knowing how Michigan State would be set up to stop Derrick Henry, had Jake Coker use play-action passes to pick apart the Spartans’ secondary. Coker was 25 for 30, throwing for 286 yards and two touchdowns. Even though Michigan State held Henry to under 100 yards, he still scored two touchdowns. While the Crimson Tide racked up more than 400 yards of total offense, however, it was Alabama’s defense that was most impressive, holding Michigan State to only 29 rushing yards, and ‘Bama absolutely humiliated the Spartans’ quarterback. As ESPN’s Ivan Maisel said, the Tide defense “sacked Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook four times, intercepted him twice, and never gave him a chance to breathe.” The crucial play of the game came late in the first half. The Tide had taken a 10-0 lead, but Cook took the Spartans down to the ‘Bama 12 yard-line. A touchdown, or even a field goal, would have given Michigan State a boost in morale before halftime, but with 15 seconds left, Alabama’s Cyrus Jones intercepted Cook’s pass, and that seemed to destroy whatever hope the Spartans had left. Jones, incidentally, added a 57-yard punt return for a touchdown in the second half, a bit of icing on the cake of exactly what I had hoped for — a totally dominating Alabama performance. With their shutout of Michigan State, the Crimson Tide sent a clear message to Clemson: “Watch out. We’re coming to beat you.”
Alabama’s Cyrus Jones returns a punt for a touchdown.
Can Alabama do it? Of course they can, if they execute, concentrate, and avoid mistakes. Mental focus is the difference between giving up 43 points to Ole Miss and shutting out Michigan State. Championship football isn’t just about strength and speed — every man on the field is strong and fast — it’s about execution. What causes defeat is fumbles, dropped passes and missed tackles. Throwing an interception is bad, but you just factor that into the risks of the passing game. You throw enough passes, you’re gonna get intercepted every so often, but there is no excuse for a fumble. My father used to erupt in rage — “He was carrying the ball like a loaf of bread!” — whenever an Alabama player would fumble, and a dropped pass would always make Dad cuss. He played end in high school, and he had a zero-tolerance attitude toward dropped passes. “If you can get your hand on the ball, you ought to catch it,” was the sum total of his view on the subject. Likewise, Dad couldn’t stand to see a missed tackle. Proper tackling technique is just basic football, and for a player on scholarship at the University of Alabama to fail at such a basic task — well, this was simply unacceptable.
All the strength, speed and talent in the world won’t win a football game if players make those kind of mistakes, which are the result of mental lapses, a failure to concentrate. At the highest level of competition, the winning team is the one that avoids mistakes, and takes advantage of the opponent’s mistakes. You can get away with sloppy plays against a weak team (and honestly, Alabama got away with a few mistakes against Michigan State) but championship football requires nearly perfect execution, play after play. Watching Clemson beat Oklahoma, it was easy to see why the Tigers are undefeated. If the Crimson Tide doesn’t play their very best game Jan. 11 against Clemson . . .
Well, I prefer not to think about that possibility. Instead I hope Alabama gives an all-out effort from the opening kickoff to the last whistle. If they play their best, the Crimson Tide can beat anybody, and that probably explains why I always remember the games that ‘Bama lost.
They lose so rarely, after all.