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January 5, 2013FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. | Fourth period isn't play period for the University of Alabama football team.
Fourth period is spirited. It is intense, often even violent.
Fourth period is 12 minutes of head-to-head competition and collision, usually twice a week.
It is, in part, why Alabama has the nation's top-rated run defense, and one of the nation's most powerful running offenses.
Mention fourth period to an Alabama player, and he will know what it means: "That's team run. It's all running plays and smashmouth football," running back Eddie Lacy said.
The idea is simple in concept but brutal in execution: If Alabama's offense can run the ball against the Alabama defense (ranked No. 1 nationally allowing less than 80 yards per game) it can run against anyone; and if UA's run defense can stop UA's rushing offense, ranked 19th in the country at almost 225 yards per game, it should be able to keep any team from running the ball.
"We've got to be able to run, that's our identity on offense," linebacker Nico Johnson said. "On the defensive side of the ball, we've got to be able to stop the run.
"Every Tuesday and Wednesday we go at it. When fourth period comes around it's competitive, and neither side wants to lose. It's best on best."
Alabama's running game and its run defense figure to be decisive factors in the BCS National Championship Game showdown against Notre Dame on Monday night. Notre Dame has given up just 92.4 yards per game on the ground and averages 202.5 with its run-first attack.
UA's ability to run, and stop the run, has been forged in those 12-minute battles where the first-team defense stacks the line and the first-team offense runs right at it.
Practices are divided into segments, but fourth period isn't a drill so much as it is a competition. It is run at full speed to simulate live game action. There are winners and there are losers.
"We get after each other," Johnson said. "That fourth period is something special to us. The focus goes up, the intensity level goes up, everything goes up and attention to detail goes up.
"Nobody wants to lose. Everybody wants to win the fourth period, because we feel like whoever wins that fourth period is going to have a good practice that day."
When the offense wins the day, that sometimes means overtime. Just because the period is scheduled for 12 minutes doesn't mean it can't be extended by coach Nick Saban, who happens to come from a defensive background.
"It really gets intense, especially if the offense is having a good day," said center Barrett Jones, the Rimington Trophy winner and a three-time All-American. "That's a bad for our team, you know, because our coach is more of a defensive guy."
Jones has learned not to thump his chest when the offense gets the better of it.
"I don't say anything. I just brace myself for starting the period over," he said.
If that doesn't seem fair to the offense, no one is complaining.
"Offensive line isn't fair," guard Chance Warmack, also an All-American, said. "Sometimes we get the best of them and Coach Saban starts the period over, but it just makes you better. You get a chance to fit your blocks again, and if you messed up the first time you get a chance to get it right the second time."
In fourth period, friendships are put aside.
"Once we're on the field, that fourth period it's defense vs. offense," Johnson said. "That's our opponent, we're their opponent, let's get with it."
Fourth-period combat in the trenches is fierce. Others are tempted to stop and watch as the linemen slug it out.
"It gets nasty, and then again it gets fun at the same time," wideout Kevin Norwood said.
Sometimes the fourth-period battles play out over years. UA defensive coordinator Kirby Smart has witnessed 6-foot-6, 304-pound defensive end Quinton Dial and 6-6, 335-pound offensive tackle D.J. Fluker go at it over the course of their careers.
"Damion does a great job, but I just cringe at the thought of having to hammer big Fluker every play," Smart said. "Those two have had some really good wars, and they're really spirited and in the right mindset. I'm not talking about talking trash or fighting, they get after each other, and I think that's what makes us who we are."
The big guys aren't the only ones challenged by the physical nature of fourth period. Running backs take on linebackers, and receivers take on defensive backs.
"I think that gives us an opportunity to become as good as we are because we're facing such great running backs and receivers who can block on the perimeter," safety Robert Lester said.
The result off all the live blocking and live hitting is that Alabama players get a taste of game action during the practice week. In more cases than not, they face better competition in fourth period than they do in games.
"We have one of the top defenses in the country, and they come out in practice situations and they go hard like it's a game," Lacy said. "It kind of gives us game experiences in practice, and when you go against them all year you know whenever you face an opponent sometimes it's going to be easier."
Said Lester, "It's a tough feeling, going against an offensive line that's real physical out there, thudding up the big backs that we have. It can almost make Saturdays easier than what it is in practice."
All the practice collisions are over for the season. Alabama will now go into the national championship game with the intention of establishing its running game and keeping the Notre Dame from doing the same.
Just like fourth period.
Reach Tommy Deas at email@example.com or at 205-722-0224.