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September 2, 2012ARLINGTON, Texas | There is no I in the word team, but there is one in win.
And there was certainly an I - an I-formation, that is - that punctuated the University of Alabama's runaway win over Michigan at Cowboys Stadium on Saturday night.
Whether the doing of new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier or not, the prevalence of the 'I' was unquestionably the most noticeable difference between last year's offense under former offensive coordinator Jim McElwain, and the one the Crimson Tide used to open the 2012 season with an emphatic thumping of the nation's No. 8-ranked team.
Overall, the Crimson Tide lined up in its more commonly-used one-back set more often than any formation Saturday, but make no mistake: it was the I-formation that delivered most early and most often.
It was the common thread in Alabama's three first-quarter touchdowns.
And it also looked like a very natural fit for freshman running back T.J. Yeldon, who led all rushers with 111 yards on 11 carries. Yeldon scored his first career touchdown lined up in the I-formation behind Jalston Fowler late in the fourth quarter.
Alabama lined up in the I-formation seven times in the first quarter, and those seven plays produced 89 yards - an average of nearly 13 yards per snap - and 21 points.
It was certainly more 'I' than fans could have expected.
And judging by the results, it was more than Michigan expected as well.
More often than not, it was Fowler handling the fullback role and opening holes in the running game with effective lead blocks. It began after a 19-yard completion from AJ McCarron to Kenny Bell put the ball on the Wolverines' 29. From there, the Crimson Tide called the power-rushing formation on five consecutive plays and completed the sequence with a touchdown.
Fowler delivered a lead block on Michigan's Thomas Gordon to spring Yeldon for 14 yards on his first career carry and UA's first snap from the 'I'. After two more carries by Yeldon, Fowler then led Lacy through a 3-yard hole before a play-action pass from the I-formation burned a stacked Michigan defensive front that was expecting another downhill rush.
Wolverines strongside linebacker Jake Ryan bit on the run fake as UA tight end Michael Williams ran by Ryan for a wide-open catch in the corner of the end zone.
One series later, UA capitalized on the I-formation again, this time for much quicker score.
McCarron found DeAndrew White for a 51-yard touchdown pass from the set to cap a three-play, 67-yard drive that required only 45 seconds. On that play, it was tight end Brian Vogler who lined up and fullback and helped protect McCarron in the pocket to allow the throw.
After a few second-half snaps with Fowler leading reserve Dee Hart through the hole, the Crimson Tide put the I-formation away like a shiny new toy that it couldn't wait to play with again soon.
It was more I-formation than UA fans saw in 2009, when Roy Upchurch occasionally lined up as a fullback for the Crimson Tide in a national championship season. Indeed, not since Tuscaloosa's own Le'Ron McClain led Alabama running backs through the hole for former coach Mike Shula's teams has the set been called as much as it was Saturday night.
What remains to be seen is whether the Crimson Tide has intentions of employing the 'I' throughout the season, or if it was merely a game-plan wrinkle specific to the Wolverines.
Reach Chase Goodbread at email@example.com or at 205-722-0916.