SEC: Brennan Clay

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NEW ORLEANS -- The focus was there. So was the determination and the motivation.

But as the final seconds of the Allstate Sugar Bowl dripped off the clock inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Alabama once again had to watch someone else celebrate a wild finish. For the first time since 2008, No. 3 Alabama (11-2, 7-1 SEC) lost back-to-back games after falling 45-31 in stunning fashion to 11th-ranked Oklahoma (11-2, 7-2 Big 12).

The team overwhelmingly pegged to win it all from the beginning of the season to just before Chris Davis' miracle return on the Plains on Nov. 30, was once again dragged down to earth with a head-scratching loss.

"We were more focused than we needed to be. We were ready to play, we just came out slow," safety Landon Collins said. "We came out very slow, very sluggish -- not to the Alabama standard."

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsAJ McCarron, playing his final game for the Crimson Tide, was sacked seven times as Alabama lost back-to-back games for the first time since 2008.
While the talk all week leading up to the game was about Alabama being prepared and motivated to play the Sooners, the Tide were out-muscled at their own game. This team looked fired up from the jump, but so did Oklahoma. The Sooners didn't have near the talent that Alabama did, but it was the tougher team on the field.

So it begs a couple of questions: Was Alabama as great as we thought it was? And where does it go from here?

For all the talk about Alabama being favored against national championship opponents Auburn and Florida State, the Crimson Tide looked nothing like the best team in the country Thursday night. A fluke play ended their BCS title hopes, but this Sugar Bowl debacle ended any sort of "best team" talk.

Alabama was repeatedly pushed around, run by and slammed to the ground against an Oklahoma team that struggled to find its identity until late in the season.

The team so used to mistake-free football saw all of the demons that plagued it in some form or fashion this season attack all at once. The secondary couldn't keep up, the offensive line broke down, T.J. Yeldon fumbled and AJ McCarron had two uncharacteristic interceptions.

Oklahoma's makeshift offensive line stuffed the biggest line it had seen all season. Alabama struggled to put consistent pressure on quarterback Trevor Knight, who picked the Tide apart for 348 yards and four touchdowns, after being the on-again, off-again guy at the position all year.

In Saban's first six seasons at Alabama, no quarterback threw four touchdowns against Alabama in game. Now, two have in this season (Johnny Manziel’s five being the other one).

"We had it in our minds that we could beat these guys, that we could move them off the ball," Oklahoma center Gabe Ikard said.

"In our opinion, they're the best team in the country, but we out-executed them."

When Alabama swung back with a pair of Derrick Henry TDs -- one a 43-yard run and the other a 61-yard reception -- to pull within a score in the second half, the Sooners fought back, exploiting Alabama's defense, especially its secondary. Collins admitted that the uptempo offense tired guys out, helping Knight & Co. find space.

"Once they got tired with that uptempo -- we knew they were big boys up front -- and we started to get them sweating and a little bit winded, we could start pounding them a bit," OU running back Brennan Clay said. "We started hitting those creases up the middle and finally they broke."

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyNick Saban admitted that maybe Bama wasn't as focused as it needed to be late in the season and it paid for that in the losses to Auburn and Oklahoma.
Then, there was the Alabama offensive line, which looked more makeshift than Oklahoma’s, yet was only down one starter -- right guard Anthony Steen. Left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio struggled all night to stop Eric Striker, who finished with three sacks. As the game went on, McCarron could barely stand upright, as he was sacked seven times.

"We were late off the ball, technique was all whacky a couple times," Kouandjio said. "If you're going against a normal guy, you'll get away with that type of stuff, but when you're going up against a top guy, it's not going to look good.

"It was all just being lazy on technique. They'll take advantage of that because they're good players."

To Alabama coach Nick Saban, you could sense that a performance like this didn't exactly surprise him after the way players took to preparation leading up to the Auburn game.

"I thought our team late in the season, from the LSU game on, maybe didn't have the focus we needed to have," Saban said. "We didn't pay attention to detail, didn't do little things right, didn't practice well. I think that eventually caught up with us in the Auburn game.

"I just don't think that our players realized sometimes that they won so much that they realize sometimes what it really takes to win every game and that you can never take anything for granted, and that everyone that plays us has something to prove. And they have to change the way they think, and that's difficult to do. And they've gotta stick with the process with what they have to do to do it, and it's tough."

A loss like this can do two things to a program: It can motivate, or it can drain. Right now, players are saying it will serve as motivation, but losing leaders, including seniors McCarron and C.J. Mosley, will be major blows. Finding guys who can step up and carry this team will be a top priority for Saban moving forward.

"These losses are not the Alabama standard," Collins said. "We're looking to come into next year and stepping it up. These losses, they weigh on us and we have a point to prove now. We know people are coming at us because they always have a point to prove against Alabama, and now we have a point to prove against everybody else in the nation."

Oklahoma focused on stopping Mosley

December, 31, 2013
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NEW ORLEANS -- When asked about his very first impression of Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley, Oklahoma center Gabe Ikard was as concise as he could be, sporting an ear-to-ear grin.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Mosley
AP Photo/Dave MartinButkus Award winner C.J. Mosley leads Alabama in tackles, tackles for loss and quarterback hurries this season.
"That dude's good; very, very good," Ikard, an All-American, said.

"He's obviously the most talented linebacker in the country."

Mosley, an All-American himself and the recipient of the Butkus Award as the nation's best linebacker, is quiet and gentle away from the field but a thunderous wrecking ball on it. He can cover the field from side to side, drop back to defend the pass, rush the passer and stuff the run.

He's the heart of Alabama's staunch defense and enemy No. 1 for Oklahoma's offense.

Ikard and his teammates agreed they'll game plan to try and thwart Mosley's effectiveness in Thursday's Allstate Sugar Bowl. You'd think that added attention would put some pressure on Mosley, but this is nothing new for the nation's best.

"I can't really control that," Mosley said. "I just gotta do what I have to do and make plays when my name is called."

He's made plenty of plays this year for the Crimson Tide. A year removed from leading the Tide with 107 tackles while sharing time, Mosley leads Alabama this season in tackles (102), tackles for loss (nine) and quarterback hurries (eight) as a full-time starter at weakside linebacker. He's also defended five passes and forced a fumble.

"C.J. Mosley is probably the best player we've played against this year, probably one of the best I've played against in my four and a half years here," Ikard said.

"You always have to be aware of where 32 is at."

And that isn't easy to do. He's so active that one blink and you'll lose him. But spend too much time locking in on him and you'll lose focus, making it easier to blow an assignment. It puts many offensive players, especially offensive linemen, in precarious situations.

Like a playmaking receiver who can line up inside, outside or in the backfield, you have to account for Mosley in some form or fashion whenever he's on the field or he'll make you pay.

"Your eyes are just attracted to him just by the way he runs around and makes big plays," Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight said.

"We're going to account for him like anybody else, but he's definitely a force to be reckoned with. He's all over the field and he's a great leader out there."

Despite lining up in the middle of Alabama's defense, the Tide's defensive quarterback finds ways to get to the ball, no matter where it is. He's so dangerous because he's so multitalented. He pores over extra film for hours each week, while still trying to motivate and push his teammates with his relentless practice habits.

The quiet tone and smoother demeanor he shows the media is only a small part of who Mosley is. He's an animal on the field, and the Sooners understand the challenge of making him obsolete is quite an undertaking.

"He's a great player. He won the Butkus Award for a reason," Oklahoma running back Brennan Clay said. "He's fundamentally sound, he gets to the ball, his technique is great."

But for all the good Mosley does, he admits he isn't perfect. He's actually pretty goofy in the way he looks when he plays. Though he carries an impressive, stone-like 6-foot-2, 238-pound frame, his legs can get the best of him at times with his "unorthodox" running style that gives him some awkward-looking strides when he runs. His legs sometimes get caught under him, making sprinting tough.

It doesn't impede his pursuit too much, but it does receive a few giggles in the film room from his teammates.

"I've been doing that since high school," Mosley said with a laugh.

The Sooners might have 10 other players to account for when Alabama's defense takes the field, but everyone knows the Tide's defense goes the way of its commander. Mosley is the linchpin, and disengaging his playmaking ability will go a long way for the Sooners inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

"That kid is the defense, if you ask me," Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix said.

"It's been a blessing having him on this team, and I'm definitely going to miss him next year."

Alabama ready for more of the zone-read

December, 31, 2013
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NEW ORLEANS -- When No. 3 Alabama (11-1, 7-1 SEC) looks at its matchup with 11th-ranked Oklahoma (10-2, 7-2 Big 12) in Thursday's Allstate Sugar Bowl, the Crimson Tide can't help but see similarities to their last opponent.

You know, the opponent that derailed Alabama's national championship hopes with a miracle of a kick return and a run game that churned out nearly 300 yards on the Tide's vaunted defense.

Oklahoma, which is averaging 235.8 yards per game this season, isn't quite Auburn, but it does possess that pesky zone-read that gutted the Tide on the Plains. For all the inconsistency that Oklahoma has had this season on offense, Alabama isn't overlooking the Sooners' running game, which could pose quite the threat if it gets going early.

"It's very important [to stop the running run early] because once they get started, they keep on rolling," cornerback Deion Belue said. "They're a tough team as it is because their offensive line is big and strong. The thing is stop the run. If all else fails, we have to do that. If not, they can keep on rolling and then they have the option to run and pass any time they want to."

The thing with Oklahoma is that the offense can get a little complicated at times with quarterbacks Blake Bell and Trevor Knight sharing time. A starter hasn't even been announced for Thursday, but the good news is that both can run the zone-read, which has been pretty successful for the Sooners this season.

Oklahoma averages 7.2 yards per zone-read play when Knight is in and 4.5 yards per play with Bell, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Knight has gained 257 yards and is averaging 10.3 yards per play when he keeps the ball on zone-read rushes, which is the best among AQ players with at least 25 zone-read runs, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

So while the Sooners aren't sure who will be under center first, Alabama knows to expect plenty of running plays, regardless.

"We're just going to look at it as them trying to take our manhood, kinda, and try and down us a little bit [with their run game]," defensive lineman Jeoffrey Pagan said.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Oklahoma has run 138 zone-read plays this season and averaged 18.7 zone-read plays (130 yards per game) in each of its last three games (all wins) after averaging 9.1 plays per game (47.2 yards per game) in its first nine games.

"We're going to be all right against it," linebacker Trey DePriest said. "We've repped it. That's the same offense the last we guys we played [ran]."

In Alabama's 34-28 loss to Auburn, the Tigers gained 270 rushing yards on 38 zone-read plays (7.1 yards per carry), including seven runs of 10 yards or more, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Alabama entered that game allowing 3.6 yards per rush on such plays, which second best in the SEC.

Senior running back Brennan Clay (913 yards) has been the bell cow back for Oklahoma, and while he's been very impressed with Alabama, he thinks Auburn's 296-yard outing against the Tide created a blueprint for how to hurt a rush defense that was allowing just 91 yards a game before facing Auburn.

"They're not the gods that everyone [claims] them to be," Clay said. "I feel like everyone was putting them on such a high pedestal, but anyone can get beat on any given day. It's whatever transpires in between those lines on the football field is what matters.

"If we come out being aggressive, being able to establish the run, make big plays, we'll be fine."

Establishing the run is easier said than done. Before Auburn, Alabama had allowed 100-plus rushing yards just four times and surrendered just five rushing touchdowns. With about a month to prepare, Alabama won't be startled by what it sees inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome Thursday.

This isn't a defense prone to continuing its mistakes.

"They're just very technical. They don't make a whole lot of mistakes, they're really physical, they know how to make plays and stop offenses, especially high-powered offenses," Knight said. "That's been a staple of their program the last couple years."

What's also been a staple of this defense is winning up front. Getting the push up in the trenches will be important for both teams, and Oklahoma All-American center Gabe Ikard said winning there will dictate the game. Fail against their big uglies, and Ikard said Oklahoma is toast.

"They're extremely powerful and big up front -- biggest defense we've seen, most physical defense we've seen, best defensive we've seen all year," he said. "It's going to be a great challenge to control the line of scrimmage against those guys. They're D-linemen are bigger than anybody we've seen this year, and that includes Notre Dame.

"If we can't run the ball, it'll be a long day for us."

Texas A&M keys for the Cotton Bowl

January, 4, 2013
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Here's a look at three keys for No. 9 Texas A&M's matchup with No. 11 Oklahoma in the AT&T Cotton Bowl:

1. Don't change the script: Offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury might be gone, but all those athletes who made the Aggies' offense so potent in 2012 will still be lining up inside Jerry's World. And that includes Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, who made just about every defense he faced look silly. Kingsbury and Manziel had a special in-game relationship, but Kingsbury is now at Texas Tech, so Manziel won't have the luxury of Kingsbury's guidance on the sideline. But the Aggies can't divert from the plan that got them to 10 wins in their first year in the SEC. Trying anything new or restricting parts of the offense probably isn't the way to go at this point in the season. The athletes are there to stay the course, and with Oklahoma's high-powered offense, the Aggies can't afford to get too far behind the Sooners. Keeping the run game going will be key as well, as Oklahoma ranks 79th nationally in rush defense and gave up 200-plus rushing yards six times during the regular season.

2. Force Landry out of the pocket: Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones completed 65.5 percent of his passes for 3,989 yards and 29 touchdowns this season and had two 500-yard passing games during the regular season. The man can throw the pigskin around, and it helps that he has four players to throw to who have more than 40 receptions on the year. That means the Aggies have to make him as uncomfortable as possible tonight. While Jones has done well against the blitz this season, he struggles when he's forced out of the pocket. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Jones has attempted 12.2 percent of his passes from outside the pocket in his career and has thrown 25.5 percent of his career interceptions from outside the pocket. Defensive end Damontre Moore was a terror in opposing backfields this season and if he can consistently get into Landry's face, he should make it tough for Landry to make a lot of plays on the Aggies' defense.

3. Contain Oklahoma's returners: The Sooners rank fourth nationally in kickoff return average, registering 26.5 yards per return. The Sooners have returned 32 kicks for 849 yards and a touchdown. Roy Finch recorded the Sooners' lone touchdown, but Brennan Clay has done the most damage on kickoffs, averaging 26 yards on 18 returns. The Aggies will also have to deal with punt returner Justin Brown, who averages 13.6 yards per return and has a touchdown. Texas A&M allowed just 18.7 yards per kickoff return during the regular season and 5.9 yards per punt return. The Aggies didn't allow any return touchdowns in 2012.

Keys for OU in the AT&T Cotton Bowl

January, 4, 2013
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Three keys for Oklahoma in tonight’s AT&T Cotton Bowl against Texas A&M:

1. Protect Landry Jones, and the ball: When the Sooners have kept Jones upright, he’s been lethal throwing the ball to a quartet of playmaking receivers. But the few times that opposing defenses have gotten pressure, Jones has been subject to major mistakes, notably in a loss to Kansas State earlier this season. This will be OU’s toughest protection test yet, as the Aggies feature one of the top sack artists in the country in Damontre Moore. But if OU can keep Moore and his cohorts out of Jones’ face, the Sooners should be able to move the ball through the air against what’s been an inconsistent Texas A&M secondary.

2. Contain Johnny Football: OU defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said this week that you can’t stop Johnny Manziel. But you can contain him. That’s obviously easier said than done. Just ask Alabama. But if the Sooners can keep Manziel in the pocket and prevent him from reeling off big plays on the move, they should be in good shape.

3. Win the special teams battle: The Sooners have their best special teams units in years, especially in the return game. Jalen Saunders’ punt return touchdown against Oklahoma State helped sparked the Sooners in a come-from-behind Bedlam win. Brennan Clay and Roy Finch have also been very good returning kicks, and punter Tress Way can swing field position with his leg. One way to counter Manziel is to make plays when he’s not on the field. The Sooners could use some big plays on special teams.

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