How Alabama Lost the 2010 Iron Bowl

I rarely ever believe that a team “lost” a game.  I am a firm believer that teams win games and rarely have it handed it them.  But in the case of the 2010 Iron Bowl, I am going to make an exception.  Or, at the very least, examine three factors that in the end cost Alabama the game.

Before I do that, full credit goes to Auburn.  This is not to take away what they accomplished.  They stuck with their game plan and persevered.  Also, they rarely relied on “trick plays.”  Another thing I hate is when people use the term “trick plays” as though those types of plays cannot be part of a game plan (a play-action pass is a “trick play”).  But in this case, Auburn rarely used them.  They lined up and went straight at Alabama.  So, credit the game plan of Auburn.  Also, the second half defensive adjustments by Auburn defensive coordinator Ted Roof paid off.  Roof may never be an elite head coach — although, to his credit, he was at Duke — but he seems to be a fine DC.

Now…what did Alabama do that kept them from being in a position to win the Iron Bowl?  Well…

  • Uncharacteristic Performances

A big deal is made about the ball security of both Alabama running backs — Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson.  Before the Iron Bowl, Ingram had lost only one fumble in his career (Tennessee in 2009)!  In the Iron Bowl, the reigning Heisman trophy winner lost a fumble and put the ball on the ground two more times (although in the latter two cases, he was already down by contact).

~Ingram’s hands uncharacteristically failed him~

The lost fumble after the catch and run was perhaps the most crucial play of the game.  Auburn had zero momentum and Alabama was moving the ball at will.  At the very least a field goal would have made it 24-0; at most a touchdown would have given the Tide a 28-0 lead midway through the second quarter.  While Auburn did not score after that fumble, scoring would have been a shot to the jugular.  Yes, Alabama got a field goal later…but imagine had that field goal been in addition to another field goal or touchdown.

[Side note: I think that Ingram could also be “blamed” for the McElroy fumble, as it appeared the two bumped into each other causing the QB to lose the ball.  But, I’ll let that one slide as the rush of Nick Fairley likely caused that disruption leading to the fumble].

That brings me to Trent Richardson.  While he did not fumble the football, his dropped pass on first down and goal at the three was another crucial misstep.  It is claimed that Richardson is a better receiver than Ingram — even though they have around the same amount of receptions on the year — but on that play Richardson morphed into Braylon Edwards.  A short run by Richardson on second, a third down incompletion and Alabama “settled” for a field goal.  This differs from the above comment on Ingram’s fumble simply because it occurred after the fumble.  Auburn stopped Alabama at point-blank range and what could have been at most 35 points turned into only three points.  Auburn, who finally recorded an earned first down in the previous drive, started to gain momentum.

Which leads to the third uncharacteristic performance — safety Mark Barron.  All the credit in the world for Barron playing through injury, but he had two plays that were simply uncharacteristic of him.  The first occurred on Auburn’s first touchdown.  It seemed apparent that Alabama was intent on stopping the run and forcing Cam Newton to beat them with the pass.  With about five-and-a-half minutes to go in the second, Newton faked the QB draw which caused Barron to bite.  Once he did, Newton stepped back and delivered a 36-yard pass to Emory Blake, who bobbled the ball a second before securing it for the score.  Whether it was a poor read on the play by Barron or simply him being over-committed to stopping the run, it was still uncharacteristic of him.

The second play that was uncharacteristic of Barron was the second touchdown pass by Newton.  On the second play of the third quarter, Newton lofted a pass deep to Terrell Zachery — a pass that hung in the air long enough for Barron to move on it and make a play.  Interception?  Pass defended?  Big hit?  None of the above!  Barron misjudged the pass and overran the ball.  The result was Zachery made the catch and ran to the end zone for a 70-yard touchdown.

The uncharacteristic play of those three individuals injured Alabama’s chances in the Iron Bowl.  That is not to state that they are “at fault,” nor does it undermine anything that these players have done both in this game and in the 2010 season.  But those few plays hurt Alabama in the end.

  • The Georgia Suspensions

While it is nothing that Alabama necessarily did, the suspensions resulting from the Auburn-Georgia game had an effect on Alabama’s chances to win the Iron Bowl.  It is rare that player suspensions can actually benefit a team, but in this case I think that the suspensions helped Auburn.  No, Mike Blanc and Michael Goggans were not starters, but they were important parts of the defensive line rotation.  That they both were suspended for the first half meant that once they returned to that rotation, they were fresh.

Yes, Alabama was able to exploit their absence because the Auburn defensive line wore down a bit quicker than normal.  And yes, credit still goes to Roof for making the necessary adjustments.  But still having those fresh legs for the second half push paid off.  They may not have stuff the stat line — and other than Goggans’ third quarter sack, they did not do much — but being able to put in fresh bodies that had played all year was critical for Auburn.  And that also hurt Alabama’s chances.

  • Alabama’s Bizarre Gameplan

I do not question coaches because they make their money preparing teams and gameplans; I just blog.  But Alabama had a bizarre gameplan that in the end came back to haunt them.

Military scholars have noted that situations and scenarios that occur in actual war are often misunderstood and misinterpreted, resulting in decision making that would go against conventional wisdom.  The Korean War and the First Persian Gulf War quickly jump to mind.  I think the same can apply to football (since the war analogy is often used with the sport).

Alabama had a gameplan that was working well in the first quarter and they seemed to completely abandon it once they got up.  Consider the following stats:

  • First Quarter: 8 run plays, 11 pass plays (0.727 run ratio)
  • Second Quarter: 6 run plays, 14 pass plays (0.429 run ratio)
  • Third Quarter: 4 run plays, 13 pass plays (.308 run ratio)
  • Fourth Quarter: 7 run plays, 8 pass plays (.875 run ratio)

Quick clarification.  A run play was determined as any designed run play as well as any play where McElroy scrambled for positive yards.  A pass play includes completed passes, incomplete passes, and sacks.

Alabama’s offensive game plan in the first quarter was incredibly balanced.  The first drive itself saw different ways to move the ball, including Julio Jones running the ball.  But as the game progressed, it seemed that Alabama moved away from this balance and more towards the pass.

Keep in mind, Auburn’s defensive weakness is the pass; their strength is against the run.  But being balanced really seemed to work for Alabama.  But given how easy it seemed to pass the ball, Alabama began to drift more and more towards the pass, as evidence in the quarterly ratios.  Much like the early part of the Korean War where it seemed to make sense to continue chasing the North Koreans back into their country, it made sense to keep passing rather than mixing it up or moving more towards the run.

Once up 21-0, Alabama had a few options.  (1) They could keep mixing up the play calling to keep Auburn off-balance.  (2) They could run the ball and control the clock.  (3) They could attack Auburn’s weakness and move towards passing.

If Alabama chose option #1, they would have likely continued to move the ball and score.  In fact, look at the run/pass ratio of Alabama’s first four drives:

  • Drive 1 (first quarter): 1.33 – touchdown
  • Drive 2 (first quarter): 0.0 – touchdown
  • Drive 3 (first quarter): 0.67 – touchdown
  • Drive 4 (second quarter): 1.5 – Ingram fumble

Drive 2 was the two-play drive where McElroy hit Jones for a 68-yard touchdown strike.  But other than the first drive of the third quarter (0.75) and the first drive of the fourth quarter (1.75), Alabama moved far away from the run for the remainder of the game and became unbalanced.  Instead of sticking with what had produced the lead, Alabama moved away from that balanced attack that seemed to be working.

If Alabama chose Option #2, they might have been able to shorten the game.  Ball control and clock control has been the name of the game once Alabama built a lead.  Keep it on the ground and grind out the clock.  Look at the Florida-Alabama game — once ahead by a comfortable margin, Alabama mostly ran the ball by over a 2:1 margin.  The fourth quarter was almost exclusively Alabama running the ball (3.67:1 ratio).  The fewer chances that Cam Newton and the Auburn offense receive, the better for Alabama.

And despite the fact that Auburn is better against the run, Alabama proved that they could run on them as evidence of the first drive of the fourth quarter.  Alabama ran the ball six times for 26 yards to get the ball to the Auburn 34-yard line.  On first down, Ingram ran to the short side of the field (to the left of the line) for a two yard loss.  After that, Alabama went back to throwing the ball.  On third down, McElroy was sacked and looking off into outer space.  Tough to say run the ball on 2nd and 12, but other than the two-yard loss and a minimal gain on 2nd-and-one (a play called for the purpose of gaining short yardage), Alabama was moving the ball on the ground.

Instead, Alabama bought into the notion that the passing game was working — and to be fair, it was working great.  But it was not going to sustain forever.  Keep in mind that including the Ingram fumble, McElroy was a perfect 12-for-12 passing.  While he still completed 60 percent of his passes the rest of the way, it is hard to imagine that he was going to maintain that perfect start.  Buying into that hype of McElroy’s start made it too easy to continue passing and abandon the run.

In fact, it could be argued that the only reason Alabama ran the ball so much on the first drive of the fourth quarter was because both Jones and wideout Marquis Maze were out of the game.  Alabama called pass plays 29 times after the Ingram fumble.  They called 14 run plays, half of which occurred on that aforementioned fourth quarter drive.

Maybe the thinking was that Alabama needed to keep pace with Auburn’s explosive offense.  But Alabama was already up big and it was Auburn that needed to play catch-up.  Instead of playing “Alabama football,” the Crimson Tide played right into the hands of Auburn.

These three items — uncharacteristic performances from key players; the Georgia suspensions leading to fresh players; and an odd shift from a gameplan that was working — that I believe in the end cost Alabama a chance to win the Iron Bowl.  This is not to state that had any of these three been absent that Alabama would have won; that is why I only state that Alabama would have had a chance to win it.

But given that Alabama contained Cam Newton and outgained the Tigers, it seems that Alabama blew their chance at ruining Auburn’s perfect season.

Instead, it is Auburn who “ruined” Alabama’s season by not only remaining in a position to play for the BCS title, but also by using Bryant-Denny Stadium as a stage for Newton to show why he deserves the Heisman trophy.  And Alabama is left looking towards next season and wondering “what if…”

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