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October 12, 2012

Alabama takes power rushing attack to Missouri

TUSCALOOSA | The oldest man of all visits Missouri today, and, not surprisingly, he is set in his ways.

And Sheldon Richardson, no doubt, has tired of hearing about him.

When Missouri was set to make its Southeastern Conference debut against Georgia last month, the Tigers' defensive tackle was asked if he'd seen the Bulldogs' season-opening win on television.

"I watched that game. I turned it off, too," Richardson said. "It's like watching Big Ten football. It's old man football."

The inference was clear enough.

Missouri, with its exciting no-huddle offense and dynamic dual-threat quarterback in James Franklin, would bring what the game has become to a league still stuck in what the game used to be. Today, for the first time in more than three decades, Missouri plays host to the University of Alabama, where the football program is as old - and perhaps as manly - as the college game gets.


Downhill in Dixie

Although the Crimson Tide enters Saturday's game 5-0 and ranked No.1 in the nation, the power rushing attack that has largely defined Alabama's offense during its 53-6 run since 2008 has yet to find the higher gears this season.

Eddie Lacy leads the team in rushing with just 314 yards, the lowest total to lead UA's backfield after five games since Ken Darby posted 309 yards over the first five games of 2006.

UA's 188-yard rushing average ranks sixth in the SEC, though freshman T.J. Yeldon has been impressive in a support role with 292 yards. Alabama coach Nick Saban said his team's performance up front on both sides of the ball has been "some good, some bad."

"Offensively, I think that inconsistency has been the biggest thing on the line of scrimmage in terms of not getting a hat on a hat and letting people give us bad plays at times," Saban said.

Though Missouri has had its problems offensively in league play, the Tigers' defense has been stout against the run, allowing just 107 yards per game. Richardson has certainly done his part.

The junior college transfer, considered one of the Tigers' top National Football League prospects, ranks second on the team in tackles with 38 - something almost unheard of for a defensive tackle. He is also among the team leaders in sacks (three) and quarterback hurries (seven), and has 6.5 tackles for loss.

"I think our defensive front has played pretty good. We've been healthy and I think we're very competitive," said Missouri coach Gary Pinkel. "We've got some good players, so our defensive front is pretty strong."


Tough sledding

As soon as Richardson characterized the Bulldogs' play as 'Old Man Football,' repercussions followed. He was withheld from speaking to the media thereafter, and Pinkel made it known he wasn't thrilled with the comment. Georgia fans chanted "Old Man Football" in the waning minutes of a 41-20 road win, and Richardson reportedly apologized to Georgia coach Mark Richt after the game.

From a publicity standpoint, it ended there.

From a punch-line standpoint, it continues.

And the joke may be on Missouri until the Tigers can crack the SEC win column.

Offensive struggles have been the common thread in losses to Georgia, South Carolina and Vanderbilt, in large part due to a devastating series of injuries. The Tigers' offense has averaged just 15 points per game in conference play.

"With the conference, with that dominant defensive line on every group, every team, it's really hard when your guys aren't healthy on the offensive line," said wide receiver T.J. Moe.

Franklin will not play against the Crimson Tide today due to a knee sprain, while the offensive line has been a patchwork unit. Left tackle Elvis Fisher has played through pain for much of the season and isn't expected to be fully healthy against Alabama. Left guard Travis Ruth is out for the year, while center Mitch Morse is out today with a knee sprain. Right guard Jack Meiners is also out. That's an entire interior offensive line operating with backups against one of the nation's top defenses.

Pinkel, for his part, isn't complaining.

"We've had some problems there. We're getting better, though. There are no excuses," Pinkel said. "Nobody really cares. We're not going to asterisk it in any way."


The new neighbors

It's often said that the difference between SEC play and the rest of college football is strength of play along the line of scrimmage.

On the field, that's one area Pinkel knows Missouri will be challenged on an annual basis.

"As a general statement, there is no question about it that the line of scrimmage is significant in the SEC. I think it's not overrated," Pinkel said. "People say the difference is the people up front. They just happen to have a lot of teams that have a lot of good people up front. That's one of the many reasons why it's such a great league."

Off the field, however, Pinkel said there are other transitions taking place that have an importance all their own. Top-notch facilities, for one, and Pinkel noted a $200 million project announced by the school in June that will not only renovate Memorial Stadium but upgrade facilities for other MU sports as well.

That includes a new weight room, a project UA is embarking upon itself. Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley said weight room facilities are vital to player development.

"When I came in my freshman year, I wasn't big, I hadn't benched that much," he said. "My junior year I benched 420. That would be unheard of back at my high school."

In preparation for the program's transition, Pinkel and his staff went to work familiarizing themselves with every team in the SEC long before the season began. And fan excitement for the switch, Pinkel said, was "remarkable."

Finally, the Tigers' staff had to alter its thinking on its recruiting efforts as well.

"The transition certainly for us now, in terms of recruiting, is getting into Florida, getting into Georgia, the states of the SEC, and recruit," Pinkel said. "I think we have a pretty good reputation. But there's nothing like getting players on your campus and they go back and say Missouri's a great place. That's the greatest sell you can get."

Just being part of the SEC, Pinkel said, lends a hand in that regard.

"Being a member of the SEC, having that as a brand name that you're a part of, is much bigger than I ever thought it would be," Pinkel added. "We're getting it here. We understand it."

For the 20-point home underdogs, that understanding is expected to deepen after old man Alabama visits today.



Reach Chase Goodbread at chase@tidesports.com or at 205-722-0196.


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