Ohio State can score on Alabama by embracing madness
For a hot minute last Saturday, Nick Saban was having Johnny Manziel flashbacks. What does that mean for a semifinal against Ohio State?
Years from now, we will remember little about Alabama’s 42-13 trampling of Missouri in the SEC Championship. The Tide scored 21 points in each half, outgained Mizzou 504 to 313, obtained 28 first downs to the Tigers’ 10, and led from start to finish. Nick Saban nailed down his fifth SEC title and led Alabama into the inaugural Playoff as the top seed.
And yet, there was a period of uncertainty. Mizzou trailed at halftime, 21-3, but scored the first 10 points of the third quarter, getting back to within one score. On both drives, the key play entailed Maty Mauk facing a third and 10, dropping back, scrambling to buy extra time, and heaving a ball deep to Jimmie Hunt. Those two plays, plus a similar answered prayer to Hunt in the second quarter to set up Mizzou’s first score, accounted for 45 percent of the yardage that the Tigers’ gained. Alabama defended well, until everything fall apart when Eris unleashed a free-styling Mauk.
The contrast between Mizzou’s anarchic source of offense and Alabama’s controlled approach was stark. Bama’s offense was a scripted series of runs and screens to negate Mizzou’s excellent pass rush. When the Tide went deep, it was from an I-formation with eight players blocking and two receivers running patterns designed to get DeAndrew White open behind the safeties. Everything that the Tide did was according to the plans of its coaches; everything that Mizzou did well was the result of Mauk running around and deciding “fuck it, I’m going deep.”
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The whole spectacle made me think six words that I never thought would enter my brain: Maty Mauk is a Homeric Hero. Let two philosophy professors you have likely never heard of explain:
The most important things, the most real things in Homer’s world, well up and take us over, hold us for a while, and then finally let us go. If we had to translate Homer’s word physis, then whooshing is about as close as we can get. What there is really, for Homer, is whooshing up: the whooshing up of shining Achilles in the midst of battle, or of an overwhelming eroticism in the presence of a radiant stranger like Paris; the whooshing up of a rock in the turbulent sea that calls forth Odysseus’s hand to grab it. These were the shining moments of reality in Homer’s world. And whooshing up is what happens in the context of the great moment in contemporary sport as well. When something whooshes up it focuses and organizes everything around it.
- Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age
The sight of Mauk and Hunt undoing all of Nick Saban and Kirby Smart’s best-laid plans created one of those moments in the Georgia Dome. A crowd that was at least 80 percent Bama fans had come to see a coronation, a thrashing of a weaker SEC East opponent.
For a stretch in the third quarter, that coronation was threatened by backyard football. Alabama’s defense is sophisticated and honed. It’s the product of years of meticulous coaching. And it was allowing an opponent back in with the most basic approach imaginable. The crowd was nervous that Mizzou was rallying and somewhat bemused at the spectacle of Mauk doing his best Johnny Manziel, “just a gunslinger out there, havin’ fun and makin’ plays” impression. Achilles, Paris, Odysseus, Mauk.
Saban and Smart can do everything right — get pressure with four, keep two deep safeties to protect the back half of the field, cover all of the initial routes — and still see their defense give up big gains.
And that’s where the danger against Ohio State comes into focus. The Bucks just booked their spot in no small part because of Cardale Jones just throwing deep balls to Devin Smith. Three touchdowns in the Big Ten Championship resulted from Smith just being more athletic and skilled than the guys covering him.
Under Urban Meyer and Tom Herman, Ohio State’s offense is a thing of beauty. Their success is as much a function of design as their quarterback saying “fuck it, I’m going deep.” Smith got his one-on-one chances as a result of Ohio State’s deadly running game. Still, there are times where even the most intelligently designed offense scores as a result of athletic advantage, as opposed to a really good play call.
In the lead-up to Bama’s date with Ohio State on New Year’s Day, many will say, “Give Nick Saban weeks to prepare and he’ll crush any offense.” There is a lot of merit to that argument. We all remember the title games against LSU and Notre Dame. In fact, the only time an opponent broke 20 points against a Saban defense in a title game was when an injury to Colt McCoy forced Texas to go with Garrett Gilbert and a modified version of “fuck it, I’m going deep” resulted.
Smith’s performance in Indianapolis on Saturday creates the possibility of a whooshing up moment in the bacchanal setting of New Orleans. Alabama looks like the best team in the country. The Tide opened as a 9.5-point favorite. Bama is a complete program operating at a level that suggests that there is no immediate end in sight to its dynasty.
And in the face of all of that, the prospect of an opposing wide receiver just making plays over a Bama corner is a threat. As Saturday showed, Saban seeks to control every last aspect of a game, but backyard plays can evade his grasp.