Did Saban Run Up the Score?

Mike Tomasky and Matt Yglesias both argue that Alabama head coach Nick Saban showed a distinct lack of class by scoring a meaningless touchdown with 47 seconds left in last night’s championship game.

Almost to a man, their commenters vehemently disagree.  And they’re right to do so.

I’m an Alabama alumnus and fan, so I’m biased.  But having the backup running back score on a run up the middle with nearly a minute left in a national championship game you’re only leading by 10 points isn’t exactly rubbing it in.

Alabama Texas Scoring Summary (ESPN) Indeed, one need only to look at the beginning of the game to see why:  Texas had already scored twice in roughly a minute.

This wasn’t the local high school powerhouse up against a weakling school from across town.  Or even Steve Spurrier running and gunning when he’s up 40 points against some Division II school.  It’s a run up the middle against the second best team in the country with the national championship on the line.

And, frankly, Alabama had already come perilously close to giving away a game they had wrapped up by playing ridiculously conservatively.  Alabama’s offense essentially sat out the second half, playing not to lose rather than to win.   That allowed Texas and their freshman quarterback to find a rhythm and come back to within a field goal with 6:15 left in the game.

It took a dynamic play on defense to end the Longhorns’ momentum and take the game back.  A fumble recovery after a hard-hitting sack gave the Alabama offense the ball back a few feet from the goal line and Mark Ingram pushed it in three plays later to get the margin back to 10.

When they got the ball back with 2:01 remaining, Texas apparently didn’t think the 10-point margin meant the game was over.  They were throwing the ball, hoping for another quick score.  Instead, they gave up another interception, giving Alabama the ball back inside the 30 with 1:48 left.

Texas still had timeouts remaining, so Alabama couldn’t just take a knee and run out the clock.  They ran the ball and, combined with a Texas penalty, got the ball on the 5 with 1:41 left.  Two runs later, Trent Richardson scored, putting them up by 16 with 47 seconds left.

Surely, this brutality was too much for the Longhorns, who broke down crying and went looking for their mommies?

Not so much.

With 47 seconds left, they kept playing football.   They got another nice pass completion but then threw yet another interception with 27 seconds remaining.

Naturally, the evil Saban immediately called for a trick play to get another quick score?

Well, no.  With the game in hand, the quarterback took a knee and ran out the clock.

FILED UNDER: General, , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. yetanotherjohn says:

    I’m from UT and I agree. Up by 20 and they might have a case. Up by 10, is fair game.

  2. Steve Verdon says:

    Let me see 1:48 left and to win, touch down + 2 point conversion + field goal….unlikely but not impossible. To tie it it up, touch down + extra point + field goal somewhat more likely although not much. So yeah, the game was clearly not over at 1:48, IMO.

    And another way to look at is: “We think you guys could still win this.” By taking a knee it could be interpreted as, “Even if you got the ball back, you suck so much it doesn’t matter.”

  3. John Pauley says:

    Please, the final touchdown was registered with :47 left–look at your cut & paste from ESPN. Was the game really in doubt with less than a minute to play and Alabama up by ten? Saban is classless.

  4. Brett says:

    If anything, Saban and the Tide should have played harder earlier on. Like you said, they pretty much sat back and let their defense do all the work in the third quarter, and (not surprisingly), eventually the enemy QB found a rhythm and exploited it.

    They should have at least tried for another touchdown or two in the third quarter, since being up 33-6 would have more or less guaranteed the game.

  5. Franklin says:

    Please, the final touchdown was registered with :47 left–look at your cut & paste from ESPN. Was the game really in doubt with less than a minute to play and Alabama up by ten? Saban is classless.

    Saban may be classless, but there is no evidence of it in this case. Teams have scored two touchdowns in less than a minute on several occasions. Saban would have been the biggest ass in the world if he let that happen.

  6. And, frankly, Alabama had already come perilously close to giving away a game they had wrapped up by playing ridiculously conservatively.

    I disagree. Unless Gilbert began to show some ability to move the ball, the only thing Alabama had to fear was defensive scoring off of a turnover. Ridiculously conservative play makes perfect sense in that situation.

  7. joated says:

    Alabama had already come perilously close to giving away a game they had wrapped up by playing ridiculously conservatively.

    Not exactly. Ingram spent much of the second half on the bench with severe leg cramps. And McElroy was having a difficult time finding any open receivers quickly while under a great deal of pressure frolm the Texas D. All those three-and-outs in the third and early fourth quarter were caused by defense as well as conservative offensive play.

    Otherwise, you’re correct. When you are “given” the ball deep in the opponent’s territory you try to score. They did so by running the ball. That’s the way the game is played.

  8. Pug says:

    Even if he did run up the score (and I don’t think he did), so what?

    This was Texas, not Coastal Carolina. The last thing in the world I want to hear is any whining from schools like Texas (or Alabama) about running up the score.

    After all, Texas played Louisiana-Monroe, UTEP, Wyoming and Central Florida this season and beat all these outmanned opponents by at least 30 points.

    Mismatches like those are the disgrace of college football, not one touchdown scored late against a powerhouse like Texas in a championship game.

  9. Trumwill says:

    Unless Gilbert began to show some ability to move the ball, the only thing Alabama had to fear was defensive scoring off of a turnover. Ridiculously conservative play makes perfect sense in that situation.

    Agreed. It’s also worth nothing, though, that had Texas’s offense been more competitive (ie McCoy still been in the game) Alabama would have played more aggressively and may have never been in the position of harboring a small lead with only a couple minutes left in the game.

    There’s no excuse, however, for the Texas playcalling. When Gilbert went in, they needed to demonstrate that they were not afraid to use them. There is no way that they were going to be able to hold off Alabama being afraid of their quarterback. Either Gilbert would have risen to the occasion and they would have won or he wouldn’t have and they would have lost. But they were not going to win that game being afraid of passing.

  10. Page says:

    One never declares “victory” while your opponent is still battling honorably on the field.

    I have no love for either Texas or Alabama but I was a college athlete and I love college football. And I appreciate the effort that the players on both teams made last night. It was a great football game.

    In my opinion, the greatness in the game was Texas’ refusal to give up in the 2nd half. They were playing with a true freshman quarterback and were 18 points down but never gave up.

    The Texas team never conceded defeat. It would have been dishonorable and insulting for Alabama’s coaches to indicate to a valiant Texas team that they didn’t respect them by purposely failing to score.

    Alabama used its 2nd string back and ran (very predictably) right up the middle. That is not “running up the score”. Both teams played football right to the end of the game and earned my respect.

  11. Drew says:

    The criticism of saban is crap. You don’t monkey around with a national championship. You are paid to seal the victory.

    The real issue is the shame that McCoy didn’t get to play. We got a tainted game. The nature of sports, to be sure, but to bad.

  12. James Joyner says:

    There’s no excuse, however, for the Texas playcalling. When Gilbert went in, they needed to demonstrate that they were not afraid to use them. There is no way that they were going to be able to hold off Alabama being afraid of their quarterback. Either Gilbert would have risen to the occasion and they would have won or he wouldn’t have and they would have lost. But they were not going to win that game being afraid of passing.

    I think they were legitimately hoping they’d be able to “work on” McCoy and get him back for the second half. So, they were having Gilbert manage the game and hoping for the best.

    Of course, the controversial shovel pass that was intercepted for an easy score at the end of the half is then even more of a head-scratcher in that context.

  13. kth says:

    The issue isn’t really about Bama-UT, except that, as you point out, it isn’t at all obvious that Alabama was running up the score. But more importantly, there is no agreement whatsoever that “running up the score” is unsporting even when, unlike in the Bama-UT game, it is obvious and undeniable (c.f. the Stanford-USC game earlier in the season, when the Cardinal, up by several touchdowns late in the 4Q, attempted an obviously-gratuitous two point conversion).

    Tomasky is free to object to excessive scoring when the outcome is relatively not in doubt, but he’s all wet in asserting that this is a traditional value widely shared in college football. It isn’t and never has been.

    The confusion arises because college football teams vary so widely in quality, and it is arguably unseemly for elite programs to run up triple-digit scores against the tomato-can non-conference opponents they inexplicably schedule (not that the D-2 schools generally mind, since they usually get six-figure appearance fees for playing those games). But when two elite programs are playing, especially in a bowl or championship game, there is no such norm agreed to by custom or consensus.

  14. Trumwill says:

    Of course, the controversial shovel pass that was intercepted for an easy score at the end of the half is then even more of a head-scratcher in that context.

    The shovel pass was about the only thing that Davis did that I approved of. Yeah, it turned out to be disastrous, but unlike the announcers (none of whom raised any objections to the play as it was called) I don’t confuse hindsight with wisdom.

    As for the rest… maybe, but I don’t think that you can sit out an entire half against any top-tier team with the idea being that you’ll pick up the pieces in the second half. If Colt had been injured midway in the second quarter, I’d be more understanding. I think the assumption has to be that Colt isn’t coming back.

    But maybe that does explain the conservatism and the shovel pass. Maybe Davis was overly optimistic that Colt would be coming back. They announced with a couple minutes left in the half that he wasn’t and then after that the shovel pass occurred.

    Meh. From my perspective, Texas had all of the momentum when McCoy got hurt and a little bit afterwards. Sacrificing that less than midway through the first quarter was a boneheaded move. I’d feel differently if Texas were to have a strong running offense and had any reasonable expectation that they would be able to pick up the slack. Or, for that matter, if they hadn’t just kept running it up the middle. They were playing like a team that was protecting a lead (like Bama in Q3, in fact).

  15. But when two elite programs are playing, especially in a bowl or championship game, there is no such norm agreed to by custom or consensus.

    There may not be a nationwide consensus, but within particular conferences this may be the case. I know in the Big Ten that if one school is up three or four touchdowns well into the second half, it’s pretty standard for both schools to pull out their starters and have the second string squads play each other. They also tend to stop making long downfield passes at this point to.

  16. Ken says:

    It clearly was running up the score. WIth 0:47 seconds left on 2nd down with Texas only having 1 timeout, there was no,zero, nada, zilch chance for Texas to win if they kneel down twice. The only way Texas wins is if Richardson fumbles trying to score again and it gets run back for a TD, get an onside kick, etc… Basically, Saban actually risked losing the game just to be the TOOL that he is. Classless Tool that is.

  17. Trumwill says:

    Turning it over on downs (even with only 20 seconds or so left on the clock) is above and beyond the call of duty when it comes to avoid running up the score. Taking a knee is only customary when you can run out the clock on that drive. Which, when they could, they did.

  18. Eric says:

    Some Texas are bigger babies than I thought. If they didn’t want Bama to score again they should have stopped them.

    I think its funny how they think its running up the score when TX through Mack Browns direction crushed teams without relenting throughout the season.