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November 25, 2009

Despite frills, Tide D still keys ground game

TUSCALOOSA _ It was his first time in the rivalry game, but University of Alabama linebacker Rolando McClain played like few ever have at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

As a true freshman in 2007 he made 15 tackles, a season high for the Crimson Tide, and nabbed the first interception of his illustrious career. McClain was in on every tackle on the final possession, but the imagery of the last important play during the final seconds of Auburn's 17-10 victory, the Tigers' sixth straight in the series, was particularly telling.

When Brad Lester cut back into the hole to try and ice the game, McClain didn't have a clean shot to prevent the first down. He was left holding the small towel the running back used to clean his hands in between plays, and the Tigers began to celebrate. At the end of what many considered the linebacker's breakthrough performance he was left throwing the towel in frustration.

"I remember we lost," McClain said earlier this week. "That's all I remember, really.
"I really don't care about my individual stats, I just know that we lost. I feel like I could have done more."

McClain gets another shot Friday when the No. 2 Tide returns to the Plains only to find that very little from that game is the same. Auburn has a new head coach, new offensive coordinator and new creative play-calling that throws everything the Tigers can think of at a defense.

"They have a quick tempo," McClain said. "They have the wildcat and a lot of crazy formations, three-back runs. I think coach (Saban) has done a great job of breaking everything down, and when you see the final formation of what they do, after all the motions and shifts, when you look at the final formation you've got to adjust to that. When you look at the final formation they do certain things out of those formations."

Independently, the Tide has seen some form of just about everything Auburn does offensively, and the scheme is very similar to what Florida executed in last year's SEC Championship Game. Mississippi State also ran three-back plays, Ole Miss called many of the same plays and numerous opponents have run the wildcat, although the Tigers run it with a quarterback instead of a running back.

"I think anytime they have a quarterback running it, it does affect how you play it because there is the potential of the guy being able to throw the ball," Coach Nick Saban said.

"It takes a lot of discipline and eye control that no matter how you play it, everybody's got to key in on what they are supposed to do. If you've got a guy man-to-man and you're playing him man-to-man, then you better watch him and look at him and cover him. They did hit Ole Miss for a touchdown pass out of that because the guy wasn't looking at his man."

However, what is different is seeing it all together and at the pace the Tigers (7-4, 3-4 SEC) try and execute. Suddenly LSU going no-huddle on Alabama (11-0, 7-0) may have been a blessing in disguise.

"That's how they get teams off-balance," McClain said. "They run to the line and they want to run a play every 20 seconds. If they get a big play then they run to the line and run the same play and try to get another big play. We'll just have to be aware of that, be ready for the quick tempo and get to the ball and line up."

The bench too will be challenged because the Tide likes to rotate players and counter whatever personnel moves the offense makes on every down. However, once everyone's on the field, McClain's job is to call any necessary adjustments and make sure everyone's lined up correctly.

"It's something that we need to emphasize with our players and it's hard to simulate in practice," Saban said. "You've got a scout team over there that needs to look at a card before they run the play, so it's kind of hard to get it going. They do a good job of that and that's something that we need to do a good job of and make sure we're lined up so that we don't give up plays because we're not in the proper alignments."

Mixed into that are trick plays, designed to further get a defense on its heels.

"We just have to do what we've been doing all year," senior cornerback Javier Arenas said.

Auburn ranks third in the Southeastern Conference in scoring (34.0), total (441.5), and rushing offense (219.5), and fourth in passing (221.9). The Tigers are also tied for second in red-zone offense (94.3 percent), but are just 10th in time of possession.

So Auburn is still a running team, only with a lot more frills in the packaging.

"That's the key to the game as far as on defense," McClain said. "They want to run the ball, they run the ball all the time.

"We just have to try and stop them."


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