Rediscovering their focus
Loss to Texas A&M has the Crimson Tide lamenting recent spate of uneven play
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Lost in the mourning are the specifics, the haze of disappointment thick and clouding.
"It is what it is," he said dryly.
Players tried to be optimistic and forward-thinking in the moments after Texas A&M ended their perfect season. They said there's reason to fight on, reason to continue hoping for a shot at getting back to the national championship game. But the stunning blow of defeat left a fog around what actually happened to bring the formerly No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide back to earth.
As center Barrett Jones put it after the game, it wasn't about what Texas A&M did, it was about what Alabama didn't.
Alabama didn't execute, didn't tackle and simply didn't play fundamental football. In other words, Alabama didn't show up the way it had for nine weeks.
Going back to the shaky victory over LSU two weeks ago, coach Nick Saban's squad wasn't itself. Alabama survived Death Valley, no more and no less. Nico Johnson, the undisputed leader of the defense, could see that.
"We haven't played to the Bama standard the past couple weeks," he said. "Fortunately, last week we got away with it. This week, I thought we had a good week of practice, but we didn't carry it over to the game. Texas A&M took advantage of the opportunity. I don't think LSU did at some points in the game. [Texas A&M] did and it showed."
Give Texas A&M credit for forcing Alabama's hand. Johnny Manziel is unlike anything UA could have prepared for and his scrambling put an otherwise quick defense on its heels. The sometimes beleaguered Aggies defense played well, too, holding the Tide more than 10 points under their scoring average.
But Alabama's loss was uncharacteristic. AJ McCarron not only broke his season-long streak of pass attempts without an interception, he threw two picks in defeat. T.J. Yeldon fumbled the ball, only his third turnover of the season. Texas A&M entered the game 116th in the country in turnovers gained with eight. It left with three more to add to the pile.
Alabama couldn't hold on to the ball even when there wasn't a turnover. UA went three-and-out on offense eight times against Texas A&M, 16 times dating to the LSU game.
Even the usually stout defense struggled in key situations, allowing the anemic LSU offense 10 of 20 third-down conversions. Texas A&M converted 11 of 18 on Saturday.
"We've created good opportunities for ourselves on third down and just haven't been getting off the field," Johnson said. "We'll have good opportunities like third and more than 12 and we'll have a bust here and there and it costs us."
Johnson said the defense needs to tackle better, something he hopes to work on this week. Alabama averaged nine missed tackles against LSU and Texas A&M, up from an average of 4.78 per game, according to ESPN Stats and Information Department.
"We've just got to remotivate ourselves," he said. "We've got to make the other team one-dimensional. We've got to stop the run and we've got to tackle better. It's simple."
"All year, teams haven't taken advantage of those aspects of our game, but it's catching up to us."
Up until the LSU game, Alabama was nearly No. 1 in rushing, passing and total defense. After losing to Texas A&M, UA is first in none of those categories. The Tide gave up points in the red zone on all but one drive the past two weeks.
Said Saban: "No matter how you cut the mustard, whether we won both of the last two games or lost both of the last two games, I don't think we've executed as well as a football team."
But even Saban didn't have an answer for some of the questions about the team's struggles. Alabama has scored just 37 points in the third quarter all season, down from an average of 111 over the other three periods. It was something he needed to address, he said.
"That's something that we need to work on and improve and there is no reason for us not to be able to execute better," Saban said.
Lacy was at a loss as to why the Tide have struggled coming out in the second half.
"I really don't know how to answer that," he said.
Neither did left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio.
"I don't know," he said. "As a player, I just worry about what I could do. I can only worry about what I could do, what me and my offensive line could do. That's all I'm worried about. Everything else, I'm not so sure what's going on or anything like that. I'm not focused on that."
If Alabama hopes to get back into the title hunt, the players and coaching staff might want to think long and hard about things like third-down struggles, missed tackles and a general lack of focus.
Saban was defiant on Monday, saying that questioning the "why" of Alabama losing was a waste of time.
"I know the questions are, 'Why didn't you do this, why didn't you do that, why did we call this play, why didn't we call that play,' " he said. "But it still goes back to why are we even in that situation relative to how we played the rest of the game. Why are we in the situation that we don't really respond as a team emotionally with any aggressiveness or energy level until we get behind 20-0?"
Saban said he was responsible, but spun the questions forward.
"For whatever reasons, we have an opportunity now to prove that we are and can be a good football team," he said. "That's what we want to focus on, that's all we want to talk about, is we're looking forward. The only thing we can gain from the past is lessons learned for all of us, in terms of what we can do better, what we need to do better, and what everybody's got to make a commitment to in terms of trying to do better. And accomplish something significant with what's left of this season, with this team."