Nov. 10, 2014
By Christopher Walsh
He didn’t know it at the time, but University of Alabama senior quarterback Blake Sims more than foreshadowed what happened at LSU on Saturday night.
While talking with reporters last week the subject of the Crimson Tide’s previous visit to Tiger Stadium came up, when A.J. McCarron dramatically led Alabama on what’s been called “The Drive.” The game-winning 72-yard possession lasted just 43 seconds and led to a dramatic 21-17 victory after LSU’s last-ditch effort to answer fell short.
Sims was on the sideline for that two years ago and paid particular attention to McCarron as he guided the offense up the field toward the student section at the toughest venue in college football.
“He got the players talking a lot,” Sims recalled. “Communication’s very good for him. I noticed certain times in the game that he didn’t have to say nothing because the players can look to the sideline or they can look at each other, know the hand signals very well. He kept his composure very well. That was a tight game that year.
“Maybe I can do the same thing.”
What resulted was equally as impressive and could be called “The Drive II.”
After LSU kicked the ball out of bounds, Alabama got the ball at the 35 with 50 seconds remaining. The first play was a quick 6-yard pass to tight end O.J. Howard, followed by a downfield incompletion to wide receiver DeAndrew White. On third-and-4, Sims was flushed on a well-timed safety blitz to nullify a screen pass, but the quarterback scampered for the first down.
What people forget about the 2012 game was that before completing 4 of 5 passes on the decisive possession McCarron and the passing game were really struggling.
After completing 9 of 15 attempts for 93 yards in the first half, he was 1 of 7 for 0 yards before getting the ball at the Alabama 28 with 1:43 on the clock. Alabama had had two passes dropped, two batted down, two broken up and McCarron threw two away en route to finishing 14 of 27 for 165 yards – and the one thing everyone remembers, the last-minute touchdown.
Similarly, the passing game had been anything but proficient Saturday. With Alabama continually checking out of runs to try and attack deep, which hadn’t worked, Sims was just 14 of 37 (38 percent) for 129 yards before the crucial possession. His longest completion downfield had been just 10 yards (does not count catch and run plays).
The Crimson Tide had also converted just 5 of 17 third-down opportunities.
“I’m putting the whole thing on me,” Sims said. “If I would have did what I do, the game would have turned out a different way.”
With 20 seconds to go at the Alabama 46, Sims again found Howard for a short gain and then hit Amari Cooper on a slant, resulting a rare drop by the wide receiver. On third down the pass rush again forced Sims to escape, only this time he threw downfield to wide receiver Christion Jones, who made a sliding catch for a 22-yard gain at the 26, which put the Crimson Tide in field goal range.
The other hero of the 2012 game was T.J. Yeldon, who caught the screen pass that resulted in the 28-yard touchdown that broke the hearts of Tigers fans.
Due to an injury sustained against Tennessee two weeks ago he had been limited during the practices leading up to Saturday, but Alabama likes to put the onus on its best players during big games. So like usual he took the majority of handoffs against the run-tough Tigers.
After LSU pinned the Crimson Tide at its own 1-yard line with 1:56 to go coaches looked to the ground game to get Alabama out of trouble. Yeldon had a 5-yard gain followed by a 3-yard carry in which linebacker Lamar Louis landed on the ankle while making the tackle. The pain on the running back’s face was obvious as he fumbled, with the Tigers recovering at the 6-yard line.
With just 1:13 remaining LSU was poised to beat Alabama for the first time since before the Crimson Tide won their national championship meeting in New Orleans at the end of the 2011 season.
“I went up to him and told him to keep his head,” Sims said. “‘We’re going to go win this game. Don’t think you lost the game for us because the game ain’t over yet. Just go watch, we’re going to win this game for you.'”
After spiking the ball to stop the clock, Alabama wanted to get kicker Adam Griffith closer and looked to White again, who made a 16-yard sideline reception at the 10. As the normally raucous crowd continued to get quieter with each play, perhaps because they had seen this before, Griffith calmly lined up the 27-yard field goal, ironically the same distance as his miss earlier in the game. He drilled it for a 13-13 score.
Coming in the one criticism of Sims was that his numbers on the road were significantly different from at Bryant-Denny Stadium. He was third in the Southeastern Conference in both passing yards and total yards, but the statistic that Alabama coaches pay attention to the most is passing efficiency.
He was fourth in the nation with a 172.68 rating, better than McCarron’s last year as a senior (167.2). At home it was a whopping 209.29 compared to 142.11 everywhere else.
Still, he had shown improvement, including helping lead Alabama to a 27-0 early lead at Tennessee on Oct. 25. Consequently, last week he was finally named a candidate for a national postseason honor when the Dave O’Brien award put him on its list of semifinalists.
He had also never led a successful drive like that, coming up short during Alabama’s only loss this season, at Ole Miss.
“There was no fear in his eyes,” Cooper said about Sims during the drive.
Although the 47 second-drive went 55 yards in nine plays, Alabama wasn’t done yet, but combined with one of the hardest hits you’ll ever see, Reuben Foster drilling Leonard Fournette on the subsequent kick return, it had all the momentum. On the first play of overtime, Alabama showed a different formation with five wide including left tackle Cam Robinson faking that he was getting a screen pass to the right. Instead the ball went to the player who had been in his spot, Brandon Greene, who was wide open and nearly scored. It set up White’s 6-yard touchdown reception that held up for the 20-13 final score.
“I was really proud of Blake, because he didn’t have one of his better games, and it was tough,” Nick Saban said. “He hung in there and made some great plays.”
Sims, who said he had no doubt that the Crimson Tide could pull out the game, went 4-for-6 for 50 yards on the drive along with the 5-yard run, and completed both pass attempts in overtime.
“That was big,” he said.