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September 12, 2011

HURT: Doing it with defense

It wasn't just a difficult, weather-buffeted journey to a 1950's-looking place called Happy Valley that made the weekend seem like time travel. It wasn't just two football teams wearing uniforms that wouldn't have seemed out of place 40 years ago. It wasn't just the presence of Penn State's venerable head coach that made Saturday in the shadow of Mount Nittany seem like a step into the realm of college football's past, a throwback that wasn't just a fancy new jersey.

That was the way the game between the University of Alabama and Penn State was played.

The Tide's 27-11 win stood out as starkly when compared to almost every other prominent game that was played over the weekend, an orgy of offense that culminated in the guilty pleasure of an empty-calorie Michigan-Notre Dame game that ended with multiple comebacks, bold play-calling and jaw-droppingly bad defensive play. The manly art of defense didn't fare much better elsewhere.

Auburn did end its win over Mississippi State with a strong goal-line stand but it was an anomaly in a game that saw 75 points and 1,000 yards on the board. Georgia and South Carolina had a similar shootout. Most of the nation's other contenders were running up big numbers on scanty competition.

Then, there was an Alabama, looking as if it had arrived straight from the Paleozoic Era and landed in Pennsylvania. The Crimson Tide won easily on the strength of what is nationally known as an "SEC defense," but such defenses - and the concurrent commitment to a conservative style - is increasingly rare, even in its natural Southern habitat.

LSU seems to have one. The lack of early competition makes it tough to determine precisely where Arkansas and Florida and others stand. But there don't seem to be many SEC defenses around, at least of the sort to which Alabama seems to have.

Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson earned national accolades for leading the Michigan comeback and averaging an eye-catching 30 yards per completion, even though he mixed in some terrible interceptions. On the other hand, AJ McCarron won plaudits among the Alabama faithful, not for aerial theatrics - although he made some nice passes - but for picking his spots, generating decent gains and, most notably, for doing nothing that put the defense in a precarious position.

Alabama applied the inexorable crush of field position, which Penn State lacked the firepower to reverse. It is an ancient way of winning, perhaps the surest way if you have the requisite physical talent.

All this is not to say Alabama's approach is the only way. Auburn and Oregon made it to the BCS title game last year via a different path, scoring points in bunches along the way.

It won't be long before Alabama is tested, and it will need enough offense to win. But on a weekend filled with offensive cruise missiles, it was intriguing to watch Alabama get things done with a hammer.


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