A Giant Challenge
Scholars have debated it for decades.
As the story goes, surrounded by jubilation in the moments after the success of the surprise attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was asked why he wasn’t joining in the revelry.
Some say this exchange took place on board his flagship Nagato. Others submit that his answer was found years later in a letter. Then there are those who suggest it was never said at all.
If legend is to be believed, Yamamoto’s response was prophetic.
“I fear all we have done is awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”
You tell ‘em, Isoroku.
Just seven months later the United States scored a decisive victory over the Japanese fleet at the Battle of Midway and the tide of the war in the Pacific turned against Japan for keeps.
Regardless of the provenance of Yamamoto’s quote, it does bear on the situation West Virginia is about to confront some 70-plus years later. Did Auburn and Oklahoma – with late season wins over Alabama – expose a template for others to follow . . . or did they merely awaken a crimson giant and really, really tick him off?
This weekend WVU embarks on a voyage to Atlanta, Georgia, that might answer that question. It’s a journey that began last December when the Mountaineers were sent hobbling into the offseason on the heels of a triple-overtime loss to Iowa State.
Now, separated from that final, ugly chapter of 2013 by a promising new recruiting class, an optimistic spring ball session, an upbeat string of summer workouts and an energized August camp, Dana Holgorsen’s Mountaineers can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.
No, in case you’re wondering, that light’s not actually a train. Though many pundits have suggested it might as well be.
It’s the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Under Nick Saban, Alabama has won three national titles and 72 of its last 81 games.
But they’ve also lost two straight.
Even if you forgot that little detail don’t for a minute think Alabama has. Hanging in every Crimson Tide locker this offseason has been a ‘motivational’ poster reminding them of that inglorious, 0-2 finish to a season that started with such promise.
“If you continue to do the same thing that you have always done you will get the same result,” warns the poster, which features the scores of both losses and a bright, red 0-2. “Guaranteed.”
For eight-and-a-half months every Alabama player has read those exasperating words every time they went to their locker to dress for a workout, or to return from a practice, or to grab their toothbrush. Hundreds and hundreds of times.
Yes, Alabama is mad. But this isn’t a contest to determine the angriest team in the ATL. More than fury matters here. This isn’t the Octagon or Jerry Springer. Or a political race. It’s a football game and - like all football games - it will be determined not by scowls but by scores.
So how do you approach an alley fight against this 800-pound crimson gorilla? The first thing you do is avoid the alley. Attack Alabama on your terms, not Saban’s. Spread the field, use tempo to your advantage, create isolations in open space then hold on for dear life.
As former heavyweight champ Mike Tyson once opined before biting a man’s ear off: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
The trick when facing a team like the Crimson Tide isn’t developing a strategy. It’s sticking to that strategy when chaos erupts. When upsets do happen in college football, they happen because an underdog team responds at critical points in the game as only a team that truly believes in itself can.
Let’s explore a few of the many things West Virginia needs to accomplish to have success Saturday.
1) MOVE THE CHAINS
For the 2013 West Virginia offense, third down was a calamity. The Mountaineers finished 113th nationally by converting just 31.9 percent of their tries, marking the first time since 2004 WVU failed to move the sticks at least 40 percent of the time.
This was in large measure due to West Virginia’s average third down situation involving an unwieldy distance of 7.8 yards needed to move the sticks – a figure that ranked 115th in the country.
Third and three gives you options. Third and eight gives you nightmares.
That’s why winning on early downs will be key for a Mountaineer offense that’s looking to rebound. But exactly what kind of alignment will West Virginia face on those key third downs this weekend?
It’s here where the plot starts to thicken. You see, Alabama’s base defense is an odd front 3-4.
Prior to ‘Bama’s 2013 BCS title game against Notre Dame, AL.com posted an interesting piece in which Nick Saban discussed what – and when - the Tide do defensively.
Four-three or not 4-3? That is the question.
“We probably play 80 percent 4-3,” Saban admitted.
So what’s all of this 3-4 talk we’ve heard emanating from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the last seven years? Saban of course stands as one of the most famous disciples of the Bill Parcells/Bill Belichick 3-4 proving grounds of the NFL. Is the Tide not as committed as some think to the odd front scheme that many regard as Bama’s staple defense?
“I'm very committed to it, if anybody would play regular people against us,” Saban was quoted as saying in the AL.com story. “But we're playing against so much three and four wideouts all the time, we're in nickel or dime. That's where the 3-4 defense is not really our base defense. You can pass rush better out of some kind of even front or flex front.”
Game tape supports Saban’s claim. Alabama frequently abandons the 3-4 in favor of an even front look against teams that consistently utilize three and four receiver sets. Spread teams - teams like Tennessee, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Auburn and Oklahoma.
And – logic suggests - West Virginia.
The good news for the Mountaineers? As Talented as Alabama was last year, it struggled to get to the quarterback. The Crimson Tide ranked 86th nationally with just 1.79 sacks per game, the lowest such figure of the Nick Saban era.
This is by most accounts a young Alabama unit in transition. The Tide lost their top tackler and three-fourths of their starting secondary to the NFL, and yesterday it was announced that starting linebacker Trey DePriest will be on the shelf against WVU because of an undisclosed “minor” NCAA infraction. But never pity a defense that features studs such as A’Shawn Robinson, Landon Collins and Da’Shawn Hand. Personnel like that is what makes it obscenely difficult to shrink the field against these guys and have success.
The Crimson Tide’s last three losses all came at the hands of teams featuring spread offenses. That’s no coincidence. Nor was it a coincidence that those teams combined to convert 54 percent of their third down attempts against ‘Bama.
For Clint Trickett and a West Virginia offense hoping to topple a heavy favorite, it will take a lot more than a haymaker or two. It will require a steady chorus of body shots that come in the form of successful third down conversions.
2) HURRY IT UP
The only thing harder than beating Alabama is beating Alabama by playing Alabama style football.
When facing the Tide it’s just as critical to understand what you can’t do as what you can. For example, avoid lining up - with regularity - in a conventional set. Avoid challenging - with regularity - the teeth of an Alabama defense that has produced eight draft picks on the defensive line in five years. That’s like cramming ten pounds of offensive frustration into a five pound bag. Perhaps most importantly, avoid doing these things – with regularity - at a leisurely speed.
Instead, use space and use pace.
The Crimson Tide has lost four times in their last 44 games. Just one of those losses (LSU in 2011) was to a team running a traditional offense at a traditional speed. The other three were to spread teams (Auburn and Oklahoma last year; Texas A&M
in 2012) that attacked Kirby Smart’s defense at a torrid pace.
So what makes LSU the only team in the past three years capable of knocking off the Tide with a slow motion, horse and buggy offensive approach? I have a hunch it might have something to do with this:
PLAYERS DRAFTED SINCE 2000
In case you’re scoring at home, West Virginia has had 30 players drafted during that span. For these reasons and more, it’s not exactly betraying a state secret to suggest Saturday in Atlanta we might see Dana Holgorsen and Shannon Dawson trying to squeeze the most out of their favorite offensive calling card: tempo.
Pace can be a nifty equalizer, but nothing is given. ‘Bama did overwhelm its share of tempo teams last year (Ole Miss jumps to mind first). Either way, as an offensive approach that one’s prevailed more than anything else against this crew. There were numerous times against fast-paced teams that Smart’s typically well-ordered Alabama defense unraveled, reacting like Tommy Callahan with an eight-point buck in the backseat. Throw in the tape and you quickly see several examples of Tide linebackers frantically directing traffic, defensive linemen slow to their stance and defensive backs out of position.
The best part? A blistering offensive pace doesn’t come at the expense of conventional strategy. Up tempo offense isn’t only about the rat-a-tat-tat goal of maximizing the snaps you take in a sixty minute span. It’s also about dictating the flow of the game at critical intervals. In point of fact, two of the aforesaid fast paced teams that beat the Crimson Tide in recent years (Texas A&M and Oklahoma) actually won the game against Alabama and won the time of possession battle. Sure these teams tossed jet fuel onto the pace of things to keep the Tide off balance, but they also very shrewdly picked their moments to throttle things down. Finding that sweet spot isn’t easy, but it’s vital.
3) KEEP A LID ON COOPER
In 94 games under Nick Saban, the Crimson Tide has averaged 197 rushing yards per contest. This year Alabama returns three road grading starters on the offensive line while the talented trio of T.J. Yeldon, Kenyon Drake and Derrick Henry give the Tide an embarrassment of riches in the backfield. If you let this crew get going downhill, you’re in for a world of hurt.
Lane Kiffin or no Lane Kiffin, Alabama’s personnel – and the unsettled situation at quarterback - suggest the old-school approach won’t change much. That’s what Saban wants and that’s what Saban will get.
If you sell your schematic soul to plug every seam in the Tide’s running game, you expose yourself to a whole different set of risks on the backend. We saw something similar in 2009 when the Mountaineers traveled to Jordan Hare Stadium. WVU shut down Gus Malzahn’s ground game like few defenses did before or have since, holding Auburn to a paltry 2.4 yards per rush. The problem? Unsung Tigers quarterback Chris Todd took advantage by throwing for 284 yards and four touchdowns in a 41-30 Auburn win.
If you right now offered me a scenario in which Alabama would throw for 284 yards against West Virginia I’d sign up for it faster than a Huntsville rocket. Why? In the much chronicled losses the last two years to A&M, Auburn and Oklahoma, the Tide threw for 309, 277 and 387 yards respectively. In Bama’s 24 wins during that time frame starter A.J. McCarron averaged just 209 passing yards per outing.
The moral of the story?
Imperative number one against the Crimson Tide is corralling their ground game enough that they’re forced to put the ball in the air more than they intend to. At that point, you sit back and slowly drink from the other bottle of poison brewed up by the Alabama offense.
That poison’s name is Amari Cooper.
From receivers DeAndrew White and Christion Jones to tight end O.J. Howard, the Tide is loaded with talented options in the passing game but none more so than Cooper. The junior from Miami lives up to the hype. Weighing in at a full-bodied 200-plus pounds, Cooper is more than just an imposing presence on the perimeter. He’s an exceptional route runner with great balance and the kind of explosiveness that renders him lethal from any point on the field.
All these skills were on display in the Tide’s Iron Bowl loss to Auburn last November. With the game tied early in the fourth quarter and ‘Bama backed up at its own one-yard line, quarterback A.J. McCarron targeted Cooper off a play action fake in the end zone. On the snap, Cooper exploded vertical with enough force to get Tigers cornerback Jonathon Mincy to turn his hips and bail out. Suddenly, Cooper broke on a dime toward the sidelines. Mincy reacted in a flash, stopping quickly and committing back toward the break in Cooper’s route.
The perfectly executed out-cut by Cooper was merely bait; a carrot he persuasively dangled in front of the Tigers’ defender before bursting back up the sidelines. With Mincy now three steps behind, Cooper picked up full steam as he crossed over the twenty-yard line. McCarron’s throw was decent but not great, forcing Cooper to stutter step. This bought Auburn safety Jermaine Whitehead just enough time to enter the action from his spot on the near hashmark. In the milliseconds immediately following Cooper’s catch, Whitehead had a shot to make the tackle and kill the play at the 40-yard line, but Cooper was too strong and shook him off. Whitehead tumbled to the ground as Cooper regained his balance and broke into a picture perfect sprint en route to the longest touchdown catch in Alabama history.
Devastating lapses like this are of particular concern for a West Virginia defense that’s allowed more big plays in the passing game the last two years (59 completions of 30-plus yards) than any team in the Big 12. Few things would be more deflating for the Mountaineers than to sell out and contain the Tide’s ground game only to get stung by a play action shot downfield.
So there you have it.
This game will come down to a pound of execution and an ounce or two of that anger we’ve talked so much about. Sure, the Crimson Tide have their rage and their “0-2” posters and their offseason of discontent to motivate them. We’ve heard since the final gun of Alabama’s Sugar Bowl loss what a savage frenzy the Tide would be worked into by the time they finally teed things up in this opener against West Virginia.
But to that end, I leave you with a simple question.
Who do you think has a bigger chip on their shoulder?
The team that faded down the stretch to finish 11-2 less than twelve months after winning the national title . . . or the team that went 4-8 less than 24 months after winning the Orange Bowl?
Make no mistake about it, folks. The giant is wide awake.
But Dana Holgorsen’s Mountaineers are climbing the beanstalk with muskets loaded and nothing to lose.
I’ll see you at the 50.
West Virginia Mountaineers, WVU, Alabama Crimson Tide, Dana Holgorsen, Nick Saban, Clint Trickett
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