October 20, 2007

Juggled front outmans Vols

If Alabama's offensive line thought it had to shuffle due to the recent absences of guards Marlon Davis and Justin Britt for personal reasons, it learned a new definition for the word on Saturday.

It's most versatile starter, preseason All-SEC choice Antoine Caldwell, was the most critical name among five Alabama players who sat out the game while the university investigates institutional policy violations related to improper receipt of textbooks. Davis was also suspended, leaving the Crimson Tide with only three regular starters available up front, and without so much as a day to practice with the newly-configured line.

"We didn't change anything that we were going to do," Saban said of the game plan. "… And we had pretty good protection out there."

As far as Tennessee was concerned, plug-in B.J. Stabler might as well have been an All-American, because the Volunteers had no luck at all exploiting the junior sub. Alabama's line paved the way for 510 total yards, UA's highest total in conference play in five years. It protected John Parker Wilson without a sack as the junior passed for a career-high 363 yards. And as if two suspended starters weren't enough, left guard Justin Britt made his return after missing last week to be with his mother, who is recovering from serious head injuries suffered in a fall.

"It gives me a great feeling to know that BJ [Stabler] stepped up," said Evan Cardwell. "And Justin came back from going through something I can't even imagine. It just shows anybody can have an opportunity each week. Everybody needs to be ready, and everybody's capable. I think me and the other four of us just knew that we had to focus more on our assignments, make sure we were 100 percent, because we hadn't played together as much as the other guys."

As a result of the suspensions, Stabler was inserted at guard, Cardwell made his third consecutive start at center, and Mike Johnson's seemingly-shaky hold on the right tackle spot suddenly became a strangle-hold.

"I just found out I had to play guard, but during the spring coach [Joe] Pendry's been telling us you need to know [both] guard and tackle. And I played guard last year so it's not too much different," said Stabler. "We found out shortly before the game."

The running game found its share of room behind the makeshift line as well. Terry Grant rushed for 104 yards and a touchdown on a season-high 26 carries. And when Wilson was pressured, he escaped well enough to notch 28 rushing yards of his own. Few if any substitutions were made up front, and surprisingly, none were ever necessary.

"At halftime we said we were going to have to come out and toughen up and they still made plays on us," said Tennessee linebacker Jerod Mayo.

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