Commentary

Tried and true powers Alabama

Originally Published: September 10, 2011
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Alabama center William Vlachos saw the Power Ranger-like uniforms Georgia wore against Boise State in Atlanta last week.

He saw the jerseys Maryland wore against Miami on Monday night, which resembled the silks worn by a Preakness jockey as much as a football uniform.

The No. 3 Crimson Tide don't run a spread offense, which has become all the rage in college football, and they show up every Saturday wearing the same simple, traditional uniforms they've worn for the last 50 years.

[+] EnlargeWilliam Vlachos
Greg McWilliams/Getty ImagesThere's nothing newfangled about William Vlachos and the Tide.

"We run a pro-style offense and our jerseys haven't changed since I've been alive," Vlachos said. "We're a traditional team and that's what we are."

At a place where college football's clock has essentially stood still for the last 46 years, Alabama on Saturday again proved its recipe for success is better than most. With an inexperienced quarterback making his first start on the road, the Crimson Tide relied on their stout running game and stingy defense to dominate Penn State 27-11 in front of 107,846 at Beaver Stadium.

Alabama ran 41 times for 196 yards and its defense held the Nittany Lions to 251 yards of offense. Penn State managed only a field goal until the final two minutes, after turning the ball over three times.

"Our defense is unbelievable," Vlachos said. "Since I've been here, it's been that way. You sit down on the bench and start drinking a Gatorade and somebody yells, 'Get out there!' because it's already third down. It's great because we get to run more plays."

As Alabama prepares for another challenging run through the SEC, getting quarterback AJ McCarron experience and building his confidence are its primary goals. Having won the starting job over freshman Phillip Sims, McCarron completed 19 of 31 passes for 163 yards with one touchdown against Penn State.

McCarron, a sophomore from Mobile, Ala., wasn't spectacular against the Nittany Lions, but then again he doesn't have to be in Alabama's system. He simply has to take care of the ball, manage the offense and let his team's defense do its job, which it always seems to do pretty darn well.

"I thought A.J. did a really good job today, managing the game and taking care of the football," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "He needs to take what the defense gives us, so he's not forcing the ball down the field and making bad decisions."

McCarron, who spent the past two seasons playing behind departed starter Greg McElroy, didn't do that in Alabama's 48-7 victory over Kent State in its Sept. 3 opener. He threw for 226 yards with one touchdown in his first college start, but he also threw two interceptions, one of which bounced off a receiver's hands.

"That's what Coach preaches -- check-downs [are] touchdowns," McCarron said. "It's about living for the next play. That's one of the things I learned sitting behind Greg for two years. I'm not going to force it."

But McCarron also knows he'll have to do more than just hand the ball off to running backs Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy for Alabama's offense to be balanced. The Tide struggled running the ball against Kent State, but their revamped offensive line performed better against Penn State. Richardson ran 26 times for 111 yards with two touchdowns, and Lacy added 85 yards on 11 attempts.

[+] EnlargeA.J. McCarron
Jeffrey G. Pittenger/US PresswireA.J. McCarron showed he matured from Week 1 to Week 2.

A strong running game can only help McCarron. When Saban was asked what McCarron can do better, he offered a list of possible improvements: "Leadership and confidence, getting us in the right plays, making the right choices and decisions and distributing the ball."

"A quarterback has the ball in his hands every play," Saban said.

McCarron's best throw came on his 5-yard touchdown pass to tight end Michael Williams, which he zipped through three defenders at the goal line to give the Crimson Tide a 7-3 lead.

"You can't be scared playing quarterback," McCarron said. "If you're scared, you're going to turn the ball over. That's not how I play."

Penn State's quarterbacks certainly seemed to be uneasy against Alabama's defense. The Nittany Lions really didn't seem to have a plan on offense, rotating quarterbacks Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin in and out of the game. After driving 54 yards for a field goal on the game's opening series, Penn State managed only 43 yards on its next seven possessions.

By then, the Crimson Tide had a comfortable 20-3 lead.

Bolden completed 11 of 29 passes for 144 yards, and McGloin went 1-for-10 for zero yards.

"They threw some curveballs at us the first couple of series," Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower said. "But we got to the sideline and [defensive coordinator Kirby] Smart already had some plays drawn up for us. We made some adjustments. That's kind of the standard we set this year, and guys have matured and gotten better."

Alabama will only get better as its quarterback gets better. McCarron will have one more warmup, at home against North Texas on Sept. 17, before the Crimson Tide open SEC play at home against Arkansas the next week. An Oct. 1 trip to Florida looms large for the first-year starter.

"A.J.'s got a good arm and he's accurate," Saban said. "When he's got his feet right, he's really good. Sometimes, he gets a little out of sorts and sails the ball, which he did a couple of times last week. I think this is a work in progress. He's got to develop, but I think he's got a lot of talent."

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

Mark Schlabach | email

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