OXFORD, Miss. - Rolando McClain recalled the plays instantly.
On one, Alabama's inside linebacker made a rare mental error. He was assigned to spy the tailback, but he noticed Ole Miss speedster Dexter McCluster streaking across the field. McClain's eye wandered to McCluster for less than a second, but he lost track of his man, who caught a screen pass for a big gain. On another play, Ole Miss ran power to the short side of the field in the red zone. McClain jumped, but he couldn't reach the ballcarrier. "It wasn't really my tackle," McClain said, "but I should have made it."
McClain will study these plays dozens of times in the next six days to determine what he did wrong. Long after this season ends, he'll remember them. "If he makes a mistake," Alabama coach Nick Saban said, "he takes it to the grave."
Those two plays, by the way, didn't cost the Crimson Tide a win. Not even a touchdown. On a day when the offense stalled five times in the red zone, Alabama still crushed Ole Miss, 22-3. But McClain's reaction to them should help explain why Alabama might be the safest bet to get to Pasadena this season.
The Crimson Tide won't relax.
Alabama nose tackle/continent Terrence Cody said McClain will curl up with DVDs of the game and pore over every mistake the defense made Saturday. He'll probably even find some gaffes in a masterpiece of a first half that ended with the following Ole Miss stat line: 14 passing yards, five rushing yards, one first down, two turnovers. Cody said its never tough to find McClain in Tuscaloosa. He's usually in the football offices, watching video. "He probably watches more than the coaches," Cody said.
In fact, Saban said, McClain effectively acts as a coach on the field, conducting Alabama's symphony of musical linebackers and defensive linemen. That front seven terrorized Ole Miss quarterback Jevan Snead on Saturday. Though Alabama didn't sack Snead once, a Tide defender hit Snead nearly every time he dropped to throw. Snead, the Heisman Trophy-candidate-turned-cautionary tale, completed 11 of 34 passes for 140 yards and threw four interceptions. "We ran into a real wall today," Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt said.
Alabama's best player and its coach might be perfect complements, since neither seems capable in finding comfort even in the most lopsided win. Saban hopes that attitude rubs off on the rest of his players. He knows complacency is a sneaky foe, but he hopes they can stay on edge. "It's a challenge," he said. "It's not really human nature to do that." Fortunately for the Tide, neither McClain nor Saban is an ordinary human.
The same couldn't be said for Alabama's offensive players Saturday. The Tide rolled like a juggernaut over previous opponents, using a bruising running game to set up huge plays through the air. Saturday, Alabama's offense showed weakness for the first time. Quarterback Greg McElroy has been answering questions for weeks about why he doesn't throw more often to receiver Julio Jones. Saturday proved why. McElroy tried to force passes to Jones, who was double- or triple-covered much of the day. McElroy spent plenty of time running from Ole Miss defenders, who, unlike their offensive counterparts, came to play. As it turned out, Jones finally did get the Tide into the end zone. On a fourth-and-1 play late in the first half, Jones threw the block that sprung tailback Mark Ingram for Alabama's only touchdown.
Still, Alabama's offensive players couldn't help but feel they didn't hold up their end of the bargain Saturday - especially in the red zone. "We just made a stupid error every time we got down there," Tide guard Barrett Jones said. "That's not going to get it done down the road."
But as long as Alabama gets it done on defense and special teams - Tide senior linebacker Cory Reamer blocked a punt and forced and recovered a fumble while covering a punt Saturday - the offense won't have to do much. Offensive players are grateful for that. So thrilled was McElroy that the defense saved his bacon that he, tight end Colin Peek and halfback Preston Dial promised Saturday to treat the defensive starters to dinner back in Tuscaloosa. McElroy, who isn't made of money, said the defenders can forget about dining at Chuck's Fish, home of the $35.95 filet-and-stuffed shrimp and the $24.95 marinated yellowfin tuna. "Maybe like Checkers or something like that," McElroy said. "Somewhere cheap."
Given Alabama's size on defense, that still could prove pricey. So McElroy has a plan, especially for the 354-pound Cody. "I'll want to limit him to about five," McElroy said. "We've got to watch his weight."
Hopefully, the offensive players can convince McClain to go. They'll have to tear him away from game film, though. He made two mistakes Saturday, and he has to make sure that never happens again.