Timely turnaround for Alabama

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 14, 2001

Sports Columnist

It had all the makings of a "well, here we go again" afternoon in Tuscaloosa last Saturday.

All season long, the Crimson Tide, traditionally known for its ownership of the fourth quarter, had been roasted by critics and fans alike for its inept play in the final stanza. Although often showing flashes of brilliance, their performances were invariably overshadowed by blown leads in nearly every game they played.

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And last Saturday was shaping up to be no exception, with Mississippi State owning a 17-10 lead and Alabama shanking a 20-yard punt to end the third quarter.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. A whole lot happened before the game reached that point.

The Tide, in only its 10th offensive play of the day, encountered some cruel ‘deja-vu’. Quarterback Tyler Watts rolled out of the pocket, threw an incomplete pass and went down in pain, having never been touched. Bama fans across the state immediately had flashbacks of last season, when Watts went down after a similar non-contact freak injury soon after earning the starting job from incumbent Andrew Zow. Thankfully, this injury did not seem nearly as severe, but it did force the Tide to bring in Zow without so much as a chance to warm up.

Mercifully for Zow, he was called into action so quickly he probably didn’t have time to contemplate the questions that had to be running through everyone’s minds, and the pressure that would come along with them. Which Andrew Zow would we see today? The Zow who had developed an annoying habit of overthrowing open receivers last year?

Or the Zow who carved up Florida twice two years ago? Would he really prove to be the team player he was being advertised as? Or would he play in such a way as to show himself as greedy and bitter for losing his starting job?

Although starting off a little shaky, Zow soon settled into the pocket and begin showing signs of the Andrew of old. Granted, he still overthrew a few, but his forte always appeared to me to be the short, pinpoint throws that he once again displayed a knack for.

Now put yourself in the shoes of Mississippi State defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunn. You have spent an entire week of practice gearing up to stop the dangerous option attack of a Tyler Watts-led Tide offense. Suddenly, after only 10 plays, your gameplan is kaput. You’re now having to deal with a primarily passing attack engineered by stand-in-the-pocket Andrew Zow. Dunn could only hope that there would be enough rust built up on Zow’s throwing arm to keep him from being effective, but it was not the case. Zow’s 12-for-22

performance with 157 yards, 1 touchdown, and (most importantly to Coach Fran) no interceptions, was more than effective. It was enough to revive the all-too-familiar question that we hoped we’d heard the last of: "so, who will be the starting quarterback this week?"

Well, of course any defensive coordinator worth his salt is going to make adjustments at halftime to slow down this unexpected aerial attack. And after Mississippi State came back to take a seven-point lead in the fourth quarter, it appeared they had Alabama figured out. After all, when they brought in walk-on quarterback Richey to run the option in the red zone earlier in the game, it was clear that was one play the Bulldogs wouldn’t have to worry about defending with Zow in the game, right? Right?

Zow seemed to confirm this on the next drive, going 4-for-4 for 79 yards and capping the 87-yard march with a 10-yard pass to fullback Donnie Lowe to tie the game at 17-17. However, after the defense held and Bama regained possession, Zow kept a 51-yard drive alive by running the option to perfection for an eight-yard keeper on a fourth and one. Then, before Joe Lee Dunn had time to retrieve his jaw from the turf, Zow audibled to another option, again making the right decision by pitching to Santonio Beard for the game winning 14-yard run.

The defense finally showed the aggressiveness that had been promised, but rarely delivered by Carl Torbush since his arrival this year. In the Bulldogs last four possessions, three of them were three plays and a punt and they could only manage 24 yards in 15 plays and completed three of 10 passes. Even the secondary made the transformation from broken coverages to broken-up passes (at least six on the day).

All of this makes for long nights at the chalkboard for the Auburn coaching staff, which has to prepare for the Tide in a few days. Although the Tigers bring a national ranking (No.17) and the better record into the game, they should be much easier to prepare a gameplan for than Alabama. Auburn running back Carnell Williams’ record 41 carries last Saturday looks a little one-dimensional, especially given the fact Coach Tuberville can’t seem to settle on a quarterback. Alabama, on the other hand, had both tailbacks average better than six yards per carry Saturday (AU’s Williams averaged four) and even unveiled a new weapon in fullback Lowe. He averaged five yards per carry and had a 10 yard game-tying fingertip touchdown catch. Not to mention the possibility of both Watts and Zow appearing on the field. And which receiver do you concentrate on? Milons, Carter, McAddley and Collins have all proven their abilities (and I look for tight end Terry Jones, Jr. to have a big game if he is forgotten in the mix). With Watts showing some passing proficiency and Zow displaying the ability to run the option when you least expect it, that all adds up to big headaches for Auburn defensive coordinator Jon Lovett.

Given these facts, plus opposing defenses and kicking games that look pretty even (besides the fact that records mean nothing in this game), I’m making my prediction:

Alabama 23 ­ Auburn 20