Nick Saban was right once again: The most important thing about a bowl game is a team’s mentality. Unfortunately, the most intense mindset in the Sugar Bowl did not belong to his Crimson Tide.
“I thought our team late in the season from the LSU game on maybe didn’t have the focus that we needed to have,” Saban said after the 45-31 loss. “We didn’t pay attention to detail, we didn’t do the little things right, we didn’t practice as well and that I think that eventually caught up with us in the Auburn game. But I actually thought the players responded well and we practiced pretty well for this game.”
So now comes the question all Bama fans are asking themselves. What went wrong? Whatever it was, Saban says lack of focus can’t be blamed.
Bama’s quarterback, AJ McCarron, was sacked seven times in Thursday’s Sugar Bowl. Five, yes five turnovers highlighted Alabama’s mistakes, and Oklahoma scored 28 points off each and every opportunity the Tide offered up- including two interceptions and two fumbles. The final fumble came with less than a minute left, when AJ McCarron lost possession, the Sooners recovered and ran the short distance to the end zone. Just like that, another Tide loss was sealed with seconds left.
“We created a lot of adversity we faced ourselves,” Saban said. “We didn’t play very well on defense in the first half. We didn’t play very good on third down, we didn’t get off the field on third and long a lot of times in the game, which were critical factors in the game.”
Offensive lineman and only senior, Anthony Steen, sat the game out with a shoulder injury, and tight end Brian Vogler was taken out due to a leg injury, but we all know injuries didn’t loose the game for the Tide.
“You know we had a lot of guys who were hurt,” Saban admitted late Thursday. “I think that showed up not so good tonight in terms of some of the big plays they made and some of the third downs we didn’t make.”
Alabama is 5-2 in bowl games under Saban and both losses have come in the Sugar Bowl, but for Saban, this game boiled down to a slow defensive start, turnovers and not taking advantage of opportunities… all things Oklahoma did instead.
“As a team we didn’t play well enough to win and Oklahoma really outplayed us,” Saban said. “I really can’t blame that on lack of focus.”
Although he set the Alabama single-season passing record, McCarron scrambled more in the second half of the Sugar Bowl than he completed passes. The fifth best defense in the country, at times, barely had enough time to set because of the efficient execution of Oklahoma’s fast-paced offense, run by Trevor Knight who was named starting quarterback moments before the first whistle. What resulted was a redshirt freshman who played like a seasoned veteran the Tide was not expecting. Knight finished the game 32-44 with 348 yards, four touchdowns and one interception.
From the start, the Sooners possessed the intensity I wished the Tide permanently exuded. At any given time, Oklahoma’s sideline looked alive and inspired. Alabama’s sideline had moments where player’s hands were in the air, urging the crowd to believe again but mostly it was serious and subdued while players stared into the unfamiliar face of trailing in a game- a rare but not elusive feeling for the University of Alabama.
On the field, ESPN sideline reporter Holly Rowe commented that Tide players seemed out of breath with their hands on their hips, chests heaving for air. This all surprised me. This wasn’t usual for Alabama football, but despite everything, there was still one thing making Bama fans smile: The idea of freshman running back Derrick Henry, who at times seemed to be the only one still thinking Alabama had a chance, and played like it.
Henry’s 43-yard run in the third quarter took Alabama to within a touchdown. Then, with 6:22 left in the game, the true freshman broke several tackles and took one to the house in a defining 61 yard run that doused the Alabama section with energy once again.
Henry had a touchdown and eight carries for 100 yards but he gave us a glimpse into the future of the program. But even that wasn’t enough to end the 2013 season on a high note. For a lot of Crimson Tide fans, Alabama three-peating in the very last game of the BCS era was the perfect way to close the chapter. But this wasn’t Alabama’s year; it was an untimely hiccup in an otherwise glorious reign, a stutter of success that still deserves some credit.
“We put over 500 yards of offense up. Somebody had to do something right,” Saban reminded reporters Thursday night. ”I was really proud of the way our players played in the second half. Being down 14, especially with the turnover right before with the half and the missed field goal, when I walked into the locker room I thought maybe these guys weren’t going to go out and do in the second half but I thought they responded really well, went out and played one play at a time, got several stops on defense, got back in the game, scored a touchdown, put a good drive together, had some other opportunities but never took advantage of them. And you’ve got to give Oklahoma some credit for that.”
Dethroning the previous champs in perhaps the “best Sugar Bowl ever” deserves credit indeed.