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October 2, 2009
What balance is really about
TUSCALOOSA _ Every college football team wants it. Coaches relentlessly preach it. Players buy into it. Few actually have it at the level they desire.
The "it" in this case is balance, the word reporters and fans hear so often that they're frequently numb to its mention even though the concept is so important, especially offensively.
Why? Because the more you can do well, the tougher you are to stop.
"If you're a one-sided offense, then they have to protect only one thing, that's a huge disadvantage," senior right tackle Drew Davis said. "If we have them on their heels and they don't know what's coming, that's a big advantage for us."
Although the numbers can be a bit deceiving, Alabama is almost ideally balanced.
For example, the Tide has 94 first downs this season: 44 rushing, 44 passing and six from penalties. Alabama has 937 rushing yards (234.25 average) and 1,025 passing (256.25), for the eighth-ranked total offense in the nation.
Consequently, Alabama is averaging 40.5 points per game, ninth-most nationally, up from 30.1 a year ago.
The Tide also has balance in another way, with the diversity of players who are getting the ball. Led by junior Greg McElroy, Alabama quarterbacks have completed 67.9 percent of their passes to 14 different receivers. The junior boasts a 175.15 passer-efficiency rating, third-best in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Through four games, sophomore running back Mark Ingram has caught 13 passes for 141 yards and three touchdowns, followed by sophomore wide receiver Marquis Maze (eight catches, 194 yards and two touchdowns), senior Mike McCoy (eight catches, 138 yards, one touchdown), and senior tight end Colin Peek (eight catches, 95 yards).
That's in sharp contrast to last year, when Julio Jones had 58 receptions, tight end Nick Walker caught 32, and no one else had more than 16.
"I think you have to have that kind of balance with the passing game to keep any defense off-balance," Coach Nick Saban said.
Having noted all that, Alabama's play-calling isn't balanced.
It's not even close because being balanced philosophically doesn't translate into doing so practically.
Overall, Alabama has 177 rushing attempts, compared to 106 pass attempts, making that 50-50 ratio more like 65-35 due to Alabama having second-half leads and other circumstances.
Which is fine with the Tide.
"We want to have balance in our offense, not really in terms of running plays versus numbers of passing plays, but really in production relative to what the other team is doing," Saban said. "If they're in a lot of eight-man fronts, you probably ought to be throwing the ball a little bit more. If they're playing a lot of split safeties because they want to try to cover you, you probably ought to be running a little bit more.
"Part of it is taking what they give you."
Almost no team in the SEC has a true 50-50 split in play-calls, except for South Carolina, which has had 141 carries and 137 throws. In terms of run-to-pass ratio, Alabama is third in the conference, 1.66 to 1, but the other top three teams may surprise you because they all run some form of the spread offense: Florida (1.78), Mississippi State (1.77), and Auburn (1.64).
Arkansas is the lone team to have more passes than runs, and it isn't close, 121 to 80.
The key to Alabama's play-calling comes down to first down, because all other situations are affected more by down and distance. For example, third-and-long almost always means pass, and so forth.
"It helps us a lot to be unpredictable on first downs," senior guard Mike Johnson said.
"You have to be aware of everything," senior end Lorenzo Washington said. "You have to use your instincts, you really can't use the down and distance."
Here's what Alabama called on first down during September:
Virginia Tech: In the first quarter, the Tide tried to run on every first down expect one, gaining six yards on eight total first downs, but mixed it up in the second quarter, gaining 78 rushing yards on seven carries compared to one completion on four attempts for 10 yards. In the second half, when Alabama had the lead, it ran on every first down except two, both completions for 53 yards, including Maze's 48-yard reception that seemed to catch the Hokies off-guard.
Florida International: The Tide showed more balance early on, attempting five first-down passes, and completing all of them for 90 yards, in the first quarter, compared to eight carries for 22 yards. However, as Alabama continued to pound and pull away, it attempted only three first-down passes the rest of the game.
North Texas: Alabama threw more on first down in the first quarter, six attempts compared to three carries, and was almost even in the second quarter, six carries to five throws. However, the more the Tide's lead grew the less it threw, with just three first-down passes in the second half. McElroy missed only one pass on first down, a deep ball he tried to hit covered sophomore tight end Brad Smelley. Otherwise, he was 8-for-8 for 99 yards, and reliever Star Jackson completed 3-of-5 attempts for 23 yards.
Arkansas: The Tide executed only five first-down plays in the first quarter, with three carries and two pass attempts (both dropped). In the second quarter, when Alabama took the lead, it threw on first down four times (completing three for 64 yards), and ran three times (5 yards). What was interesting was that during the 99-yard drive in the second half, Alabama was horrible on first down, with six carries for 7 yards, and one completion for 32 yards to sophomore Darius Hanks. Everything else came on second- and third-downs and penalties.
For the season, McElroy is 23-of-33 for 465 yards on first downs. On the 10 incompletions, Alabama went on to get the first down anyway six times.