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Thursday, December 3, 2009
Can Alabama come through up front?

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Mike Johnson, Alabama’s senior offensive guard, looks at Florida’s defense and sees a lot of familiar faces.

He knows what the Alabama offensive line is up against. He faced these same guys a year ago in the SEC championship game. But he did so with a different cast around him.

Johnson and senior right tackle Drew Davis are the only holdovers from the Alabama offensive line that went up against the Gators last season.

It’s a line that included two All-Americans now playing in the NFL -- Andre Smith and Antoine Caldwell.

It was also a line, according to conventional wisdom, that would have to fight through some serious growing pains this season with three new guys being added to the mix.

Well, the statistics say that the Crimson Tide have been even better up front offensively than they were a year. Just about all of their offensive numbers are up.

And this production has come while blocking for a first-year starter at quarterback, Greg McElroy.

The Crimson Tide are averaging 212.9 rushing yards per game after rushing for 184.6 yards per game a year ago. They’ve given up just 14 sacks all season after allowing 25 a year ago.

“Really, it's just been guys putting in hard work,” Johnson said. “I’ve said time and time again about the offensive line putting in a lot of hard work. That’s the same thing Mark (Ingram) did and Greg (McElroy).

“It’s just all those guys getting their nose in the book and learning this offense and being able to be prepared for situations we see on Saturdays.”

While Alabama has exceeded most outsiders’ expectations with the way it’s played this season in the offensive line, its most recent outing wasn’t exactly one of those performances you hang your hat on.

The Crimson Tide’s running game was stopped cold last week by an Auburn defense that stacked the line of scrimmage and really hadn’t been very good against the run all season. The Tigers are 10th in the league in rushing defense.

Alabama was held to a season-low 73 rushing yards in its come-from-behind 26-21 win over Auburn, and McElroy was sacked three times and hurried 10 times.

“It just seemed like they were in the right place at the right time, to be honest with you,” Johnson said. “It seemed like every time they had a safety come up, he was right in the hole we were running to.”

Johnson also knows that the Crimson Tide will need to be at their best Saturday against the Gators, who will be playing shorthanded in the defensive line. Junior defensive end Carlos Dunlap, one of their most athletic defensive linemen and a dominant pass-rusher, is suspended after being arrested on DUI charges earlier this week.

But it’s still a Florida defensive front that has plenty of depth and is probably as healthy as it’s been all season. Junior Justin Trattou, the star of the South Carolina game, will start in Dunlap’s place, and the Gators are also planning on moving Jaye Howard out there some from tackle.

The one thing Florida doesn’t have is a dominant interior defensive lineman, one of those run-stuffers that clogs up the entire middle. But the Gators are extremely active at linebacker with Brandon Spikes and Ryan Stamper and haven’t given up much of anything on the ground all season.

They’re second in the SEC to Alabama in rushing defense, giving up an average of 89.9 yards per game and have allowed just three rushing touchdowns all season.

The Gators have held four straight opponents under 100 yards rushing, and nine of the teams they’ve faced this season have failed to crack the 100-yard barrier.

That’s significant, too, because Florida is 39-1 under Urban Meyer when its opponent rushes for less than 100 yards.

“They play great team defense,” Johnson said. “It seems like they’re never out of place. They’re always in the right place at the right time (with) good gap control. I think the biggest thing for us is being able to get movement up front and displace that gap control defense they have, just make sure we communicate.”

Alabama’s offensive line took over the game in the third quarter a year ago, driving 91 yards in 15 plays for a touchdown coming out of halftime and going into the fourth quarter with a 20-17 lead.

But in the final quarter, the Crimson Tide only had the ball for six plays and managed just one yard.

It was Florida defensive end Jermaine Cunningham who turned in the critical defensive play in that quarter. He flew in to sack John Parker Wilson on third down.

“When they went up in the fourth quarter, we needed to put a drive together and put points on the board,” Johnson said. “They were prepared to stop us in that way. Hopefully, we’re better equipped for that this year, having been through that last year.

“We’ve just got to put it together this time.”