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October 11, 2009Although Saturday's final score should have been more lopsided and the University of Alabama defense dominated, pound-for-pound Ole Miss was the best team the Crimson Tide has faced thus far.
How the Rebels respond will determine their season, although the goal of finally reaching the SEC Championship Game is all but kaput. Last year, Ole Miss ran the table after its loss at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Meanwhile, for Alabama the door is now wide open with every team goal still obtainable, from the division title to possibly playing for the national championship, but only if the Tide avoids major injuries and continues to improve.
"This is probably the most complete team win we've had all year," Coach Nick Saban said after the 22-3 road victory. "I'm pleased and happy for our players. I can't tell you how proud I am of the effort and toughness and competitive character our players showed today to win this game."
At the midway point of the season, Alabama ranks first or second in the SEC in eight categories, including rushing defense (1st, 65.67 yards), punt returns (16.11), turnover margin (1st, +1.5), pass-efficiency defense (2nd, 78.32), total defense (202.6), scoring defense (2nd, 6.40 points), sacks (2nd, 2.8) and tackles for loss (7.6).
Nationally, the Tide is second in pass-efficiency defense and total defense, fifth in turnover margin and seventh in pass defense.
"Very few people score points against Alabama," Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt said.
Combined with LSU's loss to Florida, Alabama is alone atop the Western Division with five more conference opponents to face.
"So far our team has answered every challenge and I'm pleased with that, but we have to continue to do it," Saban said. "This is like climbing a mountain. The higher you go, the more treacherous it gets. The focus has to be better, the execution has to be better and you have to continue to work and go through the grind to get there."
Here are this week's awards.
Player of the game: Although sophomore running back Mark Ingram finished with 172 rushing yards, the win was clearly the result of the defense. Is it possible to divide a game ball into 11 pieces?
Play of the game: Ingram's 36-yard touchdown near the end of the first half put Alabama up 16-0, and was the only time either team reached the end zone.
Statistic of the game: Alabama has created nine turnovers in the last two games and gone from near the bottom of the SEC standings in turnover ratio to the top at plus-nine. Meanwhile, the offense saw its string of plays without turnover end at 267, which dated back to its first snap against North Texas on Sept. 19.
Hit of the game: Although it was an inadvertent helmet-to-helmet hit, any time a player can make a nasty tackle and take away the ball at the same time like senior Cory Reamer did from Dexter McCluster is impressive. Honorable mention goes to sophomore defensive lineman Marcell Dareus for his earlier hit on McCluster.
Did you notice? Alabama didn't have a sack.
Here are 10 other things you may not have noticed:
1. The turnovers: The last time Alabama forced five turnovers in a game was against Western Carolina on Sept. 18, 2004. The last time it had four interceptions was against Hawaii in 2002. Alabama was at its opportunistic best with senior cornerback Javier Arenas, Reamer and junior linebacker Rolando McClain playing smart football for their three turnovers. The first interception came in part from a pressure from blitzing sophomore safety Robby Green with quarterback Jevan Snead overthrowing McCluster and sailing it to senior safety Justin Woodall. Junior cornerback Kareem Jackson's interception was picturesque, jumping a slant route inside the Tide 5 that killed the Rebels' best chance to score a touchdown.
2. McElroy's Day: He's had better, but was also sacked twice, pressured seven times and took a number of hits while completing 15 of 34 passes for 147 yards. He threw three balls away, had one deflected and two passes dropped. He was 7-for-14 on third downs, but only three for first downs as Ole Miss did a pretty good job of limiting yards after the catch (just 71). Most of Alabama's passes were along the sideline to McElroy's right, with few throws over the middle and one completion off a crossing route. His longest pass was 16 yards to sophomore Marquis Maze late in the third quarter. McElroy didn't attempt a pass in the fourth quarter.
3. Red zone: Alabama has been in the red zone 33 times this season, more than any other SEC team (while the defense is tied with Florida for the least amount of times opponents have been inside the 20 with eight each). Saturday, though, the Tide struggled offensively and had to settle for five field goals. McElroy was 1-for-8 in the red zone and three times tried to get the ball to Julio Jones when he was double- or tripled-teamed. The Tide had eight carries for just 23 yards and one fumble. Even with the seven yards credited to true freshman running back Trent Richardson on his fumble, the Tide averaged 2.88 yards rushing in the red zone and 5.36 everywhere else.
4. Ingram's day: The quintessential Ingram carry came early on his 15-yard run despite being hit in the backfield. After he emerged through the left side of the line and should have been wrapped up by an Ole Miss defender Ingram still got another seven yards. Alabama ran mostly behind the right and left tackles, but finally broke one when the Tide went with an unbalanced line and snapped the ball before the Rebels could react. Senior tight end Colin Peek had the sealing block and Jones took out the defensive back on the outside for the touchdown. In wins over SEC opponents Arkansas, Kentucky and Ole Miss, Ingram had 67 rushing attempts for 364 yards and four touchdowns.
5. Julio's Day: McElroy did what he said he wouldn't do and try and force the ball to Jones. He threw 14 passes his direction and completed four for 42 yards. Twice Jones should probably have drawn two pass-interference penalties, but a couple of times McElroy had better options including junior tight end Preston Dial wide open across the middle on first-and-10 at the Ole Miss 26, and junior receiver Darius Hanks on the same corner route he scored on last week. Jones appeared to aggravate his ankle injury while running a deep route, with McElroy taking a hit as he threw for an incompletion.
6. The pass-rush: With Reamer and senior Eryk Anders back in their usual roles, the Tide attacked more and got Snead off-balance from the start. Although it didn't lead to any sacks, Alabama tallied five turnovers, five tackles for loss (minis-28 yards), five pass breakups and five quarterback pressures. Even more telling was this statistic from ESPN, Snead completed just 31.4 percent of his passes (11 for 35), the lowest completion percentage of any quarterback with at least 35 passes this season. Second on that list was Ryan Mallett's 34.3 percent against Alabama a couple of weeks ago for Arkansas.
7. Who was thrown at: Ole Miss was able to complete three passes against Arenas, but also had two attempts intercepted (the one he took away from Shay Hodge and Snead's overthrow). Junior cornerback Kareem Jackson had seven balls thrown his way with one completion for 8 yards, but also had a pickoff. Two passes were completed with senior Marquis Johnson in coverage, while Snead was 0-for-4 throwing at sophomore safety Mark Barron. The three biggest receptions were to players out of the backfield, while Hodge (two catches, 21 yards) and McCluster (three catches, 22 yards; six carries, 15 yards) were non-factors.
8. The fake punt: Alabama sold it with angled blocking on both sides except for Barron, who made the reception. Long-snapper Brian Selman, Chris Underwood and Anders all slid out to the right (with the blockers on the left side doing the same), with Reamer going around the right side and could have been a second passing option. That left Barron alone when he turned into the middle for the pass.
9. Special teams: Reamer beat junior Terry Grant to the punter on the block, caused and recovered a fumble on a punt return, and senior Leigh Tiffin made all five field-goal attempts. Also on the plus side was true freshman Nico Johnson's forced fumble. For the not-so-good, Ole Miss did a good job minimizing Arenas on punt returns (two for 2 yards), senior punter P.J. Fitzgerald had two balls end up in the end zone for touchbacks and kick returns remain an issue. Opponents are averaging 39.3 yards per kick return, which ranks ninth in the SEC.
10. Penalties: Alabama had only four. Peek was called for both a false start in the red zone and the hold on Arenas' big kick return, the offense was flagged for an illegal formation when it tried to get off a quick snap, and Green was called for pass interference. A holding call against Jones was declined.