By JOHN ZENOR
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — One of college football’s statistical truisms the past few years has been you’re not going to beat Alabama if you can’t at least slow down the ground game.
That’s typically much easier said than done, but two defenses have already achieved the goal against the top-ranked Crimson Tide through three games.
The uncharacteristically unproductive running game hasn’t cost Alabama yet but No. 21 Ole Miss visits Saturday night with the Tide coming off its worst rushing output since the South Carolina game in 2010.
Alabama managed just 66 yards on 21 carries against Colorado State and ranks last in the Southeastern Conference in rushing and only one spot higher in total offense. Ole Miss safety Cody Prewitt thinks it’s more aberration than trend.
“They were making mistakes that Alabama normally doesn’t make,” Prewitt said on Monday. “They had players not playing that will be playing against us. We’re absolutely expecting the best Alabama team to be out there. And that’s what we want. We want to line up and play them.”
The Tide is 52-0 since the start of the 2008 season when running for 140-plus yards and has produced an average of 84.6 rushing yards in the seven losses during that span. Virginia Tech also held Alabama below 100 yards (96).
The Tide has often been able overpower defenses with the run, especially when the opponents are 40-point underdogs like Colorado State. Instead of wearing down an overmatched team, Alabama ran only once in the third quarter.
The biggest difference in the offense from last season is the loss of three All-America offensive linemen to pave the way.
With tailback T.J. Yeldon, Jalston Fowler and Kenyan Drake joined by four highly rated tailback signees, it seemed Alabama could continue to pound away if it wanted to. It just hasn’t happened consistently yet.
Quarterback AJ McCarron and a deep receiving corps have picked up some of the slack.
“I mean, we’re a new team,” McCarron said. “I think people need to realize that. You’re not going to be the best at running every year. Some years you’re going to be better throwing the ball than you are running — and vice versa. I think people need to kind of realize that. We’re going to play to our strengths. If we’ve gotta throw the ball, we’ll throw it. If we’ve gotta run it, we’ve gotta run it. As long as we win.”
The Tide has still won, but the offense couldn’t get Colorado State to budge when the Rams put extra defenders near the line.
“At some point you can’t let them dictate what we’re going to do,” center Ryan Kelly said. “We’re going to still run our offense and some guys we can’t account for, but that’s why we have backs like T.J. Yeldon and all those guys that make those guys miss.”
Yeldon has been productive with 273 yards, including a 149-yard performance against Texas A&M. His 38-yarder on his first carry after the coaches held him out for the first quarter was the running game’s only big highlight against Colorado State, when guard Anthony Steen was among several players sidelined.
No clear No. 2 guy has emerged to sustain the two-tailback system that has thrived for Alabama going back to Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson.
It’s helped produce a running game that ranks 90th nationally while averaging 132.0 yards per game and 4.1 yards a carry. The Tide has ranked 16th in rushing yards each of the past two seasons.
Alabama coach Nick Saban thinks the problems are correctable and about execution not play calling or personnel. He pointed out a running play that wasn’t blocked properly and led to a back getting tackled in the backfield, and then produced a nice gain the next time when it was run correctly.
Drake actually went the wrong way on his 3-yard touchdown run late in the first quarter.
“It’s not necessarily the plays that we call, because as fans everybody thinks you called bad plays because they didn’t work,” Saban said. “But why didn’t they work? I think that’s the most important thing. Consistency in doing what you’re supposed to do.
“It’s the little things that come from paying attention to detail that are important in getting our offense going the way we’re capable of.”