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November 17, 2012

Third down's a charm for Tide

TUSCALOOSA | The defense that couldn't get off the field for two weeks was able to get off the field. The offense that had trouble sustaining drives was able to convert.

Western Carolina may not have presented a prime-time challenge to the fourth-ranked University of Alabama on Saturday, but the Crimson Tide was able to show progress on third down.

After allowing LSU and Texas A&M to convert a combined 21 of 38 third-down plays, Alabama held Western Carolina to a 2-of-11 conversion rate. And the UA offense, which was 8 of 24 on third downs against the Tigers and the Aggies, was an efficient 6 of 9.

"Things feel normal again," UA defensive lineman Damion Square said. "You get used to things around here, so when they're not going that way chaos starts to happen."

That chaos manifested itself in a come-from-behind victory at LSU and an upset loss to Texas A&M. Western Carolina provided Alabama with a chance to straighten out third-down problems on both sides of the ball going into the final games of the season. How the Crimson Tide performs on third down offensively and defensively from here on out will be a big factor in determining whether UA can finish without another defeat, and whether it can win a Southeastern Conference championship and, with help from other teams, play its way back into the national championship picture.

For Alabama's offense, third-down opportunities were hard to come by mostly because Western Carolina couldn't stop UA on first and second downs. The Crimson Tide was up 21-0 before it had its first third-down snap.

In fact, every one of Alabama's third-down conversions came on the ground.

Alabama did convert two third downs on a 99-yard touchdown drive that ended the day for starting quarterback AJ McCarron. Running back T.J. Yeldon carried twice to set up third-and-2, then ripped a 15-yard run off right tackle to move the chains. Another third-and-2 a few plays later saw Eddie Lacy ramble for 15 yards around right end to convert, setting up another UA touchdown.

Lacy scored on a 3-yard carry on third-and-1 with 3:02 remaining in the first half. The rest of the conversions came from Alabama's offensive backups, with second-string quarterback Blake Sims scrambling three times for first downs in third-down situations on the drive that put UA up 49-0 in the third quarter.

"It's very important to convert on third downs," Lacy said. "That gives the defense a chance to rest, it gets our offense in a rhythm and you can control the game, control the clock."

The UA defense wasn't really tested in get-off-the-field situations. Western Carolina quarterback Troy Mitchell managed a 9-yard scramble on third-and-12 in the first quarter, and the Catamounts did move the chains in the final moments of the opening period when Darius Ramsey gained 2 yards on third-and-1.

After that, Western Carolina never really came close to converting on third down the rest of the first half. Backup quarterback Eddie Sullivan had a 15-yard scramble on third-and-16 in the third quarter, and Alabama held on fourth down to complete the stop. The only other successful conversion occurred in the fourth quarter on an 11-yard run by Michael Vaughn on third-and-1 against a defense made up of third-team UA players.

The defensive stops, unlike what happened against Texas A&M and LSU, were how Alabama coaches draw it up.

"It was very important," safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix said. "We practice that every week, getting off the field on third down. We showed it today and had a great game."

Recruiting: Derrick Henry talks of selling the Tide program to other prospects

Reach Tommy Deas at tommy@tidesports.com or at 205-722-0224.

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