- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
TUSCALOOSA, ALA. -- An analysis of three key plays in Alabama's 32-28 win over Georgia in Atlanta -- and what those plays mean moving forward for the Crimson Tide:
Black and Belue
The score: No score, 1:23 remaining in the first quarter
The situation: Third-and-13 from the Georgia 31-yard line
Why it didn't work: It was just another example of Alabama's woes on third down. For what seems like months now, the Crimson Tide defense hasn't been able to get off the field. With Georgia in third-and-long, UA broke down once again, and this time it was cornerback Deion Belue who was the culprit.
The breakdown: Georgia spread the field in three-wide with quarterback Aaron Murray and tailback Keith Marshall in the shotgun. Tavarres King and Chris Conley were the two receivers on the far side of the field and Malcolm Mitchell was set alone on the near side. Alabama stayed in the dime formation with C.J. Mosley and Adrian Hubbard on at linebacker, three down linemen, Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix and Robert Lester at safety, Belue and Dee Milliner at cornerback, Geno Smith at star and Vinnie Sunseri at money.
Alabama dropped back into a zone with Sunseri, Smith, Mosley and Hubbard starting out underneath while just three rushed the quarterback. Murray was able to plant his feet and survey the field with plenty of protection. He found King matched up with Belue and took his shot, firing the ball toward the sideline. Belue, who got turned around on the play, fell too far behind to catch up, allowing the 33-yard gain.
Instead of getting off the field on third down, Georgia was able to convert the long throw that kept the drive alive, eventually leading to a Bulldogs touchdown.
What it means: Belue was abused by the Georgia offense on Saturday night. Five of King's seven receptions came with the junior college transfer on him in coverage. Alabama was able to survive Belue's miscues this season, but will the trend continue against Notre Dame? The Fighting Irish don't have Georgia's passing game, but consider what LSU was able to do against the Alabama secondary with Zach Mettenberger, who was thought previously to be possibly a step below the dreadful quarterbacks who came before him a season ago. The good news for defensive coordinator Kirby Smart and head coach Nick Saban is they'll have several weeks to scheme against Notre Dame as well as their liabilities in pass coverage.
The score: Alabama trailing 21-18 with 3:05 remaining in the first half
The situation: Second-and-nine from the Georgia 41-yard line
Why it worked: Alabama committed to the run and dared Georgia to stop it. It was a battle of wills that the Crimson Tide would win all night, pushing the line of scrimmage forward whenever they felt like it. There might be no truer a display of the offensive line's dominance this season.
The breakdown: Offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier dispensed with the formalities and threw away the three-wide look Alabama had run up to this point in the game. Two tight ends and a tailback was all the Tide would need as UA went into the pistol formation.
Eddie Lacy lined up a few yards behind AJ McCarron with the line stacked to the short side of the field off right tackle D.J. Fluker. Both tight ends Michael Williams and Brian Vogler lined up that way and the entire offensive line went toward the right at the the snap. There was nothing tricky to it. No guards pulled and there was no misdirection. Anthony Steen and Chance Warmack hit the second level of the defense and Lacy found a crease and took it to paydirt, taking advantage of great blocking all around, in particular from Williams and Vogler.
What it means: One has to wonder whether Alabama's change of heart against Georgia was a sign of a more distinct change of direction this season. For a few weeks we'd seen Nussmeier go to the no-huddle on offense, spreading out the defense with three and four wide receivers and throwing on first and second down. After falling behind Georgia, that changed. He ended up running 36 times for a season-high 298 yards with two or more tight ends in the formation Saturday night. Alabama played power football against Georgia and couldn't be stopped. Notre Dame has the fifth-best rush defense in the country. Can the Irish handle the Tide's old-man football?
The final dagger
The score: Alabama trailing 28-25 with 3:27 remaining in the fourth quarter
The situation: First-and-10 from the Georgia 45-yard line.
Why it worked: Simply put, Georgia flinched. After sustaining blow after blow from the Alabama running game, all it took was a well-timed fake. The Bulldogs bit and came up with nothing but air.
The breakdown: Georgia coach Mark Richt looked at the clock and remembered what Alabama had done all night. It seemed UA was destined to drive slowly down to the end zone running behind the play of the offensive line. Richt guessed that way, and he guessed wrong.
Nussmeier showed run, employing the same two-tight end, two-receiver look he'd run out of all night. This time he went play-action, and everyone on defense bit. The safety went toward the line at the snap, even cornerback Damian Swann. The 5-foot-11 sophomore got on his heels and couldn't catch up when Amari Cooper hit him with the stutter step and flew by him down the sideline. The freshman receiver had nothing but green grass in front of him as McCarron threw the ball with perfect protection from the offensive line.
What it means: When Alabama is running and throwing out of play action as it did on Saturday night, it's hard to imagine any defense -- even one as good as Notre Dame's -- stopping it. The balance of run-pass is too much for a defensive coordinator to plan for, especially when you consider the big-play threat Cooper has become. His ability to stretch the field requires the attention of the safeties and when they're thinking too much about helping out in run support, it's lethal.
7dEdward Aschoff and Alex Scarborough