TUSCALOOSA | Defending a proven rushing attack with an eight-man defensive front is textbook football strategy, and one that the University of Alabama offense has faced on a frequent basis.
Consider Saturday's road test at Penn State the next such challenge.
The factors that suggest the Nittany Lions would be wise to employ such a game plan are everywhere, and Alabama players appear to have a sense of what to expect.
"Probably so," center William Vlachos said when asked if he expected an eight-man front. "I know Penn State, they're a team that says, 'This is what we do. Come and beat us.' We expect everybody to load the box on us. We've got to identify and get it blocked. Whatever they come out in, we've got to be ready for."
Given Alabama's inexperience at quarterback, and that one of its top two wide receivers (Darius Hanks) is unavailable, the likelihood that Penn State will commit an extra defender to stop the UA running game goes from high to a virtual certainty. Add in the fact that Alabama's offensive line was among the few inconsistencies in a 48-7 win over Kent State last week, and that hostile road crowds of 100,000-plus fans aren't exactly conducive to effective passing, and the Penn State defensive plan is as much of an open book as any.
But while that could mean a difficult day for running backs Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy, it also means more downfield opportunities in the Alabama passing game. And if UA completes enough passes over the top of that stacked front, the Nittany Lions defense could be forced to play more honestly.
"We're still going to run the ball. You can't stop us from running," said Lacy. "But A.J. (McCarron) and Phillip Sims are going to be able to make the big plays down the field to take them out of the box."
The mystery will be who is on both the passing and receiving end of those Alabama passes. And solving that mystery will be as much of a challenge for Alabama as it is for Penn State.
UA coach Nick Saban has maintained his willingness to play both quarterback A.J. McCarron and Phillip Sims. And although Marquis Maze is clearly UA's top receiving threat, secondary threats are less certain in the absence of Hanks, who is sitting out the last of two games in compliance with NCAA rules.
Alabama has had success running the ball against loaded defensive fronts before, and the result is favorable down-and-distance situations that are more manageable for quarterbacks.
But it takes more than the line to do the job.
With two tight ends, an offense can only block seven men. That means the running backs have to make the eighth man miss.
"A lot of times we do tell Trent, 'We're going to leave one for you,'" said offensive lineman Barrett Jones. "It's something he doesn't have a problem with."
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