Red Storm Rising

Alabama's impenetrable defense has the Crimson Tide on the brink of a title
December 07, 1992

There is a joint in Tuscaloosa, Ala., called Dreamland. It's a shack with a swinging screen door. There are two items on the menu at Dreamland, barbecue and white bread. The lady at the counter tells you, "Don't start with me about them side dishes." The Crimson Tide of Alabama is a bit like Dreamland. It has nothing going for it except the meat on its bones and its simple excellence.

'Bama's coach, Gene Stallings, is a deliberate bore. 'Bama's quarterback, Jay Barker, is a devout bore. 'Bama is a very good team, though not yet a great one, which could easily be the national champion and just as easily could lose its last two games. The Crimson Tide is unbeaten at 11-0 and ranked second in the nation by virtue of its chief talent: not losing. "We've won 11 games and we still haven't won anything," Stallings said after Alabama's 17-0 Thanksgiving Day victory over Auburn at Birmingham's Legion Field in the traditional Iron Bowl. Nevertheless, this is the winningest Crimson Tide team since the 1978 and '79 squads, which won national championships with marks of 11-1 and 12-0, respectively.

About the only thing that distinguishes Alabama this season is a defense that thinks it can win the national title all by itself. And maybe it can. The Tide's 21-game winning streak is the second longest in the nation, behind Miami's 29 straight victories, and with one more triumph 'Bama can set up a national championship game with the Hurricanes. If Alabama beats Florida this Saturday in the inaugural SEC championship game, the Tide will play the Hurricanes in the Sugar Bowl on New Year's Day in a meeting of No. 1 versus No. 2.

So far, the Tide has been winning by forcing opponents to make mistakes, while avoiding errors of its own. The defense is as resolutely immovable as a moose in the middle of the road. Alabama leads the nation in scoring defense, surrendering a mere eight points a game. It also ranks first in total defense, pass defense and rushing defense. Led by Eric Curry at defensive end (box, page 42), it has had 47 sacks, intercepted 20 passes and recovered 14 fumbles.

Consider what the Tide has done to opposing quarterbacks: On Oct. 17 Tennessee's Heath Shuler was knocked silly by linebacker Lemanski Hall. Shuler's backup, Jerry Colquitt, couldn't believe the speed with which 'Bama defenders were arriving in his backfield. "Those guys are unbelievable," he said. "They beat you to the pocket." On Nov. 7 linebacker Derrick Oden knocked LSU's Jamie Howard out of the game with a bruised shoulder.

In its first shutout of Auburn since 1975, 'Bama allowed only 20 yards rushing and forced Tiger quarterback Stan While from the game late in the fourth quarter with a separated right shoulder. White had been intercepted twice and sacked five times.

Though struggling at 5-4-1 coming into the game, Auburn was intent on giving Pat Dye, who had led it to four SEC titles, a victory in the finale to his 12 years as coach. Dye had resigned the night before the game, citing poor health—he is suffering from hemochromatosis, a spleen and liver ailment caused by an excess of iron in his blood, and also had a tumor removed from his liver last summer—and a pending NCAA investigation into his program. Dye insisted that his departure was not an admission of guilt, but he may have been addressing both of his burdens when he said, "There is a time to fight, and there is a time when to fight would cause more destruction than the other."

The emotional Tigers held 'Bama to a scoreless tie in the first half. But on the first series of the second half, Alabama cornerback Antonio Langham picked off a pass from White and returned it 61 yards for a touchdown. It was the defense's third touchdown of the season and the second by Langham, who three weeks earlier had returned a blocked punt for a score against Mississippi State. "I just felt we had to make a play," Langham said.

The defense has had to be superb to compensate for an often hapless offense. Through little effort of his own, quarterback Barker is unbeaten as a starter, though he has thrown nine interceptions and only six touchdown passes this year. Barker, a wholesome, unassuming fellow whose fondest wish is to "visit the Holy Land and walk where Jesus' ministry took place," seems to neither help nor especially hurt the Tide. What offense Alabama can muster comes from tailback Derrick Lassie, who carves his own holes. Lassie alternates with Chris Anderson and Sherman Williams to ensure that fresh legs are always in the game, which is what passes for inventiveness at Alabama.

What passes for flamboyance comes in the form of David Palmer, a receiver, kick returner and sometime quarterback. Palmer was suspended for the first three games of the season after he was twice arrested for drunken driving. Since his return, he has not been much of a factor other than to serve as a decoy. "It's frustrating because I'm not making a difference," Palmer says. "I want to make something happen."

A soft schedule has made Alabama's offense look more prolific than it really is. Of the Tide's first six opponents, only Southern Mississippi, now 7-4, has a winning record. 'Bama's last five foes have a combined mark of 31-23-1. Mississippi State and Auburn gave the Tide its only stern tests this season. "We've won the close games," says Stallings. "A lot of teams haven't."

To this efficient if uninspiring team, Stallings contributes a calm head and a gruff style not unlike that of his mentor, Bear Bryant. Stallings has kept the Tide focused in spite of distractions like Palmer's arrests and, more recently, allegations of illegal payments to a player. Three weeks ago Gene Jelks, a halfback and defensive back at Alabama from 1985 to '89, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that during his playing days, he had been given thousands of dollars by boosters and two former assistants, Rockey Felker and Jerry Pullen. Felker and Pullen denied the charges, and Alabama has said it will cooperate with any SEC and NCAA inquiries.

Perhaps because Stallings so closely fits the model of the quintessential Tide coach, 'Bama fans have stood solidly behind him, as they never did his predecessor, Bill Curry, who is actually the architect of this team. One of the persistent criticisms of Curry was that as an outsider from Georgia Tech who had never played for or coached under Bryant, he could not recruit well. Instead critics should question Curry's curious sense of timing. He has now left two national championship-caliber teams right before they blossomed. Curry left Georgia Tech in 1987 for Alabama, and in 1990 the Yellow Jackets won the national title under Bobby Ross. When Curry tired of the constant harping at Alabama and went to Kentucky three years ago, it was said that he left no talent behind. The current class of seniors belies that, especially free safety George Teague, linebacker Antonio London, Eric Curry and defensive end John Copeland.

While his predecessor may have attracted much of the talent, the more easygoing Stallings has succeeded in molding it into a fighting unit. The difference in the two coaches' personalities may be the slim factor that has enabled this 'Bama team to go one better than Curry's 1989 team, which went 10-0 before losing to Auburn, 30-20, in a game in which emotions were heightened because it was the first Iron Bowl ever played in the Tigers' Jordan-Hare Stadium. Because of Dye's impending departure, Auburn's emotions ran high again last Thursday, but the Tide proved too physical for the Tigers. "If you need emotion to win a big game, you're in trouble," said another Curry recruit, senior fullback Martin Houston, stating a philosophy that comes straight from Stallings. "Emotion doesn't win it. It's who hits. Everybody said Auburn had all the emotion, but everybody forgot that we wanted to get to the SEC championship game undefeated and keep our national championship hopes alive. We had a lot more to play for than they did, in my opinion."

With or without emotion, the Tide must find a way to score more points if it hopes to beat Florida and then conquer Miami. The Gators were the last team to beat Alabama, having dealt the Tide a 35-0 thrashing in the second game of 1991. This year Florida is just as explosive. It had won seven straight games before its 45-24 loss to No. 3 Florida State last Saturday. Coach Steve Spurrier remarked afterward that his Gators will match up better against Alabama's plodding running attack than against the elegant passing of the Seminoles, who own the closest thing to a 50-point offense among this year's Top 10 teams. "Florida State has beat a lot of people bad, and we're not the first," Spurrier said. "I think we've got a better chance against Alabama."

Spurrier and quarterback Shane Matthews will hold nothing back. Fake punts, flea-flickers and reverses are all part of the Gators' Fun and Gun system. 'Bama has seen nothing like it this season—in fact the Tide has yet to face a strong passing team. But Stallings says the Tide is capable of putting together a complete performance on both sides of the ball. "We still haven't played our best game," he says. "It's out there somewhere."

PHOTOJOHN BIEVERAuburn's James Bostic (33) found that there was no parting this red sea of defenders. PHOTOJOHN BIEVERThanksgiving was an all-too-typical day for Barker: only five completions for 63 yards.

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