TUSCALOOSA, AL - SEPTEMBER 08: Head coach Nick Saban of the Alabama Crimson Tide looks on against the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers at Bryant-Denny Stadium on September 8, 2012 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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This is the real Alabama football: terse words delivered to an incredulous audience by an angry coach. All after his team's five-touchdown victory.
"This game turned out to be a lot like what I expected it to be, which is a lot different than what people in here expected it to be."
Normally Nick Saban is Gospel in Alabama. But for at least a week, the more he fretted, the more the national and local media laughed at him. For seven days, 35-year-old Western Kentucky head football coach Willie Taggart and his staff prepared to do what's now considered largely impossible: beat Nick Saban's Alabama. More than any actual opponent in the calendar year of 2012, It's that perception that's drawn the most frustration for Saban, coach of the defending national champion Crimson Tide, winners of two in the last three years and holders of those 14 much-touted all-time titles.
Because of the final result of the game -- a 35-0 Crimson Tide shutout -- there's no incentive to believe that Western Kentucky found a magic bullet any more than Michigan did. But Taggart and his staff know what Saban and his staff are mocked for genuinely fearing: Alabama can be beaten, and a team the caliber of Western Kentucky could very well do it. Albeit unlikely, it's entirely possible. The lessons as to how WKU could have won are shockingly simple, as are the reasons why they and many others didn't and won't.
Lesson 1: Compliments In Wartime: Basic Tactics And Strategy
To stage an upset of the decade, you must first control the narrative, by aiding and encouraging any perception that you're far too underqualified to compete.
Taggart's Monday press conference comes on a rainy Labor Day morning, with just a handful of local beat media on hand. In arguably his most high-profile game as a head coach, Taggart, the former record-setting WKU quarterback, is keen on presenting himself and his team as humbled and overwhelmed simply to stand inside of Bryant-Denny Stadium. He toes the appropriate party lines of promoting competitiveness, but he aw-shucks as much of the situation as possible.
Starting running back Keshawn Simpson injured his knee in the Hilltoppers' 49-10 season opening win over Austin Peay, and while Taggart knows he'll miss the Alabama game, he doesn't announce this for four more days. WKU was also one of only two teams in the FBS to go 0-for-3 in field goals in their opening game, an issue Taggart trades barbs with a local reporter over, as Western did not recruit a scholarship kicker in 2012 after making only five of 20 attempts last year, the worst completion rate in the country.
But the only soundbite that will make waves outside of Bowling Green is Taggart's tongue-in-cheek praise of the defending national champions. Despite clearly laughing along during his assessment, Taggart says Alabama will be the next NFL expansion franchise and could even beat a few pro teams as well. This, filtered through social media and game notes with levity removed, will be the first nationally noticed quote of the week.
"I told our guys yesterday," he says after the press conference, "You're gonna hear me saying a lot of great things about them tomorrow. Don't listen to it. It's part of all this."
Taggart has made the first move. The longer and louder the media laughs at the prospect of this match-up, the better the intangibles will favor his team's focus, and hopefully Alabama's malaise, having just beaten nationally ranked Michigan, 41-14, in Dallas.
Don't mind old Western Kentucky: After years as a mere I-AA powerhouse under Jack Harbaugh, father of NFL coaches Jim and John, the Hilltoppers made their official FBS debut with a sparkling stadium addition and new team facilities in 2009, the same year they lost 21 scholarship seniors. WKU went 0-12. Head coach Dave Elson was fired after a 2-22 record, and Taggart, whose No. 1 is retired at Western, left his job as running backs coach at Stanford and returned to Bowling Green. At the time of his hiring, he was the youngest FBS head coach.
Transitioning out of a spread and into the Harbaugh hybrid of a power run and a west coast pass was ugly at first. After a 2-10 2010 season, Taggart's team hung with Kentucky (a game famous for linebacker Andrew Jackson's on-air roster analysis) to open 2011 before losing at home to Indiana State. But the system clicked, and WKU won seven of their last eight (only losing to LSU) to finish 7-5. Entering 2012, they're considered a favorite to win the Sun Belt. According to one football coach in Tuscaloosa they could be the best team in that conference.
Lesson 2: An Ode To The Beauty Of Shotions
To beat a defense that's considerably more talented, you have to find a strategic advantage that slows them on a play-by-play basis.
Across the Sun Belt Conference, every team other than WKU runs some variation of the spread. Because of that, you often won't even see a fullback on a roster, and if there's a tight end on the depth chart he's little more than a slower inside receiver.
But in addition to their bulk, strength and run-blocking, a Hilltopper tight end's awareness is so crucial because Western Kentucky likes to motion. And Western Kentucky likes to shift. Western Kentucky likes these so much, they call them "Shotions."
He stands up, gets in a three point stance, and makes a roaring noise.
"ALLLLLLLRIGHT!!!! And they get their feet in the ground and... ALRIGHT HERE WE ARE!," he says with a loud laugh.
Wells notes that the "3" in the Alabama 3-4 is renowned not so much for penetrating, but simply locking up an offensive line, keeping them from meeting linebackers to block in the running game. So the linebackers do the run-stopping and have the freedom to do it very well. WKU has a veteran offensive line with four upperclassmen, but they could always use the help.
"If we can get a guy to rock back two steps, to me I consider that a win, because now we’ve got them back on their heels. Sure, they might make a play but it might be three yards downfield and we’re rolling, we’re getting something going here. It’s second and 7. Now, we do it again? Third and 4. Next thing you know, maybe they line up wrong and we’re gone."
Lesson 3: The Danger Of Running Sideways
Michigan lost to Alabama well before halftime in Week 1. The combination of turnovers and an alarming inability to run the ball had Denard Robinson and company trying to throw their way back into the lead (that's a general summary... here's an insanely descriptive one). Bama loves that scenario, because with teams abandoning their run game the Tide are free to disguise coverages and create mistakes that turn into more turnovers.
Turnovers are an instant kiss of death against Alabama. Sure, they're bad no matter the opponent, but they're the black mark of certain death against Alabama. In the virtual world, consider it worth an instant click of the reset button. Without that luxury in real life, bear down and pray.
"If you turn the ball over against them, the game's over. Doesn't matter when it happens, because they're too good," Taggart says on Monday.
The potential for turnovers only increases if WKU decides to stray from its base DNA, yet another reason Taggart feels confident that he likes the natural match-up of the WKU offense -- somewhat similar to Bama's -- and the Bama defense -- unlike Western's in formation, but kindred spirits in the philosophy of frequently blitzing from multiple places. Of all the game tape viewed over the week, only once do I see an offensive coach looking at the Michigan game, because it's so far removed from the WKU attack, which ironically has shades of maize throughout. Had Taggart been born a decade late, he'd likely have been the perfect quarterback for a spread system, but under the growing influence of the Harbaugh system, the sentiment inside WKU's offices is that the spread is worthless against a defense as fast and technically sound (read: proficient at single, open-field tackles) as Alabama. The appreciation for the Harbaugh offense -- call it "Power Coast" -- started as Taggart entered his senior year at Western in 1998.
"As I came closer to graduation our offense started to change," he says. "It still had option in it, but we started to develop into a power team. Those things always seemed to work for us, for what we were: blue collar. That was the attitude we always had. Going out to Stanford, Jim was the same way. Blue collar, go out and rattle somebody. If you look at what football’s come to now I think it gives you an advantage. You look and so many teams are running the spread that playing us is kind of like going against an option football team. You don’t see it everyday."
Lesson 4: The Hidden Discipline Of Good Pressure
To beat an offense notorious for doing one thing better than anyone else in the game, you have to sell out to stop that one thing and hope the other doesn't kill you in the process.
Lance Guidry, hailing from Welsh, Louisiana, has the requisite ingrained swagger of any self-respecting Cajun. There's no way to qualify what effect his passion -- a chatty energy always rising or falling, shifting from salesman to pastor to field general effortlessly -- has as a defensive football coach. He likes to blitz, disguise pressure and involve every defender possible, much like how he talks to people in a room: all at once. His first and most important task is to take away the running game, a motive obvious to even the most casual fan.
One theory making the rounds: Bama will run just enough to get quarterback A.J. McCarron comfortable, but this could be a game where the Tide try and let the second-year starter work on his passing. The most effective way to do that is to build a steady ground game first, in which Alabama uses the zone technique. For Guidry, that means combating Bama's desire to get their vaunted, disciplined offensive linemen upfield and in one-on-one blocks ("they'll maul us if that happens," he assures). Guidry likes some of what Michigan did against the Tide, but just wants to show more aggression. His head coach has no issue with that.
While watching film with safety Jonathan Dowling, a transfer from Florida starting his second game at WKU after sitting out 2011, Guidry marvels at the offensive line's discipline.
"This is probably the best offensive line I've ever coached against or even seen. They take no bad steps. They pull, they're strong, and they're coming pissed off."
After a silence, he grows excited by an observation that should inspire dread.
"Look. Look. That No. 76 [tackle D.J. Fluker]? That No. 76 is beat on that play. He's down after the block but he works himself back into the line and makes another play."
He turns his attention to the running backs.
"That freshman [T.J. Yeldon]? That freshman's got everything that [Trent] Richardson had. He just needs the time. Look at the way they carry the ball, just like Richardson. High and tight."
"They probably duct-taped them boys in practice," Dowling says, in reference to Bama's famous lack of fumbles.
Guidry will end up spending Wednesday adjusting a sizeable portion of his game plan after he gets second thoughts about what he thinks the Tide will see on film. His guess is that Alabama will focus on both what WKU did to blitz LSU in 2011, the Topper opponent most comparable to Bama's speed and ability on offense. This means that a few standard blitzes he used with success against the Tigers -- and last week against Austin Peay -- are potentially out for Saturday.
"In last week and in LSU film, they’re going to see us bringing pressure from the field. Most of my pressures were man pressures. I’m not necessarily going to take it out, but today we brought a lot of pressure from the boundary. I think ... It’s not that they’re scared of us, but they know that if they go into the boundary that they’re running away from the pressure. So it’s going to force the corner support. So today I brought a bunch of corner fires. I still called my front the same way, but I brought my corner fires and played some man. When you look at Alabama and what they do, most of their runs are to the field. The pressure from the boundaries ain’t gonna affect anything in the field. Today we came up with some things that I think will help bring pressure from the field, but we’re going to cheat it into the boundary."
The advantage Taggart's offense has is the disadvantage Guidry is trying to overcome. On offense the same exact play can be run out of multiple formations -- what looks like 20 different plays is actually five in four formations. But on defense Guidry will have to completely rewrite some of his pressures by sending different guys while also maintaining coverage integrity. Taggart says he won't even have to hold plays to the second half to wait out Bama's halftime adjustments because of the varied looks he can provide. Guidry, for the moment, is considering eliminating pressures just because they've been used in previous games.
"Sometimes you look at what they’re doing and you think sometimes, OK I gotta show ‘em something that I haven’t done. Because when you’re good, and you know you’re good, it don’t matter. You do what you do because you’re better than that other team and your kids know it. But when there’s a disadvantage somewhere you’ve got to find a way without going outside your scheme."
One asset: through film study, WKU's found a tell on the Alabama offensive line. The Topper coaches believe Fluker is tipping off which plays are run and which are pass by his posture, with an accuracy of over 90 percent.
"It's nothing big. If you're subtly looking at it, you won't see it. But if you go back and look, run-pass, run-pass, run-pass, there is a difference," defensive line coach Eric Mathies says. "When [offensive lines] have big guys, like big, big guys, they change how they get in their stance. So Fluker's 6'6', 320. When it's run, he'll get down in his three point stance because he's coming off. When it's pass, he's got that right foot back."
Because of this, one-word calls will be made at the line to alert pass or run based on Fluker's footwork.
Throughout the week Guidry and his staff work and rework a myriad of coverages and pressures, the verbiage alone creeps towards a master's course in advanced jargon. In simpler terms, there's a similar sentiment to the offense: get physical early. Guidry wants his guys attacking with confidence (and speed), so they're basing the run defense solely around an Alabama tight end, No. 89, senior Michael Williams. Save for one goal line play against the Wolverines, Williams is never, ever anything more than a giant glowing light to the WKU defensive staff. Wherever he's lined up, that's where they're headed. Far more than Fluker's alleged tip, all week long the defense trains on locating No. 89 and shifting pressures accordingly. In their most-used formation, only one running play -- a wing formation that motions away ends in a zone run -- doesn't run on Williams' side of the action.
Guidry wants to bring extra pressure by putting Dowling, a rangy, tall safety, in a Cover 1. By bringing an extra blitzer, Dowling will be expected to cover a massive amount of the field. There's a risk in every kind of pressure, but staying at home isn't an option.
"He may not be enough, but he brings us our best chance," Guidry says.
Lesson 5: Compliments In Wartime: Advanced Theories
Sometimes, the opponent is a lot better - and a lot better equipped - at Lesson No. 1.
Taggart's done interview after interview, far more than his usual load. USA Today drops by campus on Thursday initially in response to Taggart's dose-of-humble-pie, David-and-Goliath act on Monday, but also to catch his response to Saban's masterstroke of a response.
By the time the coaching staff returns from a brief dinner to film study Wednesday night, word of Saban’s rant in Tuscaloosa reaches the Hilltoppers. Following Alabama's practice that day -- allegedly marred by poor concentration in the secondary while preparing for WKU's Shotions -- Saban lit into his local press corps for overhyping the Tide after just one week.
Guidry is back in his office with a set of magic markers and a pile of play cards scattered in piles for the next day's practice. He hasn't heard about it yet, so I paraphrase the good parts: Western's a quality opponent that the national media has disrespected, Jackson is a SEC quality linebacker and national championships aren't won in a single game in September. While still drawing his plays, Guidry starts to smile, and then debunks Saban's quotes in between scribbles and cards.
"He knows, right now, how everyone thinks ... He knows they’re an upper echelon SEC team ... But ... he knows he’s been beaten before by a lesser opponent, although usually it’s in his first year at a program*."
* He's right. Saban lost at home to UAB, 13-10, in 1999, his first season at LSU, and at home to UL Monroe, 21-14, in 2007, his first year with the Tide.
"As a coach I think you look at things positively ... when I was at McNeese State and we were dominant in I-AA, when we’d play a lesser team we’d always try to find something. We tell our players in the film room, ‘Hey, this kid ain’t bad.' Usually these teams would have a few kids that were as good as ours, but they just didn’t have enough of ‘em."
"He’s watched film and sees what we’re doing. He knows we’re doing some good stuff. I think he respects us, but he knows we’re outmanned. But he respects us. He don’t think the media’s given us 'our due.' He’s bein’ politically correct."
The press conference makes national headlines by morning. Several pundits are quick to jump on Saban for bullying the media and trying to control the press. Even more begin to mock the mere concept that the Hilltoppers could ever compete with Bama, let alone threaten to beat them.
When I mention the reaction -- and the subsequent press it's given WKU -- on Thursday afternoon, Taggart grins ear to ear, just like Guidry, in the same amused, somewhat patronizing way. He's sitting at his desk watching cut-ups of the Tide's 2011 defense against Penn State and Florida.
"That wasn't for the media," he snickers. "That had nothing to do with the media. That was for his players. He's an old, wise, wily veteran."
After a beat he slaps his hands together and laughs, in on a joke that seemingly not a single member of the national college sports media gets: Saban doesn't give a damn what's written about Alabama, only that the media has some role in influencing his players' mindset. Information absorption is one of the few aspects of their lives he can't control outright, so he's taken to a kind of disinformation campaign to refocus his team, at the press' expense. To Taggart and his staff, the joke is that, with all the obvious responsibilities of reloading a national title winner upon Saban, anyone would believe he has the time or interest to actually get mad at reporters.
"They went from an 'upset alert' to this. He got the media mad, and the media got his team focused! College football, college football ... You gotta love it," he laughs.
But Taggart concedes that mystique trickles into game plans quite often. After he's done reviewing which plays he and passing game coordinator Nick Sheridan will use for Saturday, he mentions the "Alabama" factor of fear for both coaches and players when I ask him if he'll be willing to deep shots early.
"It all depends. Alabama doesn’t let you just take shots. Those guys are aggressive, you need to make double moves. I don’t see a lot of their guys just open from flat-out route running. We’ll have to find ways to get maximum protection, but that’s the thing, I think so many people are caught up in just … you know … Saban’s defense … and Alabama this and that, they think you don’t have time even if you might. You’ll have time, but you just have to execute when you do. The beauty of them is, they can rush four and drop seven guys back. And that’s what hurts you more than anything, because there’s not a lot of windows to throw the ball in. I think that’s what hurts you more than anything. Guys have time, they just make a bad decision."
Lesson 6: The Benefit Of Failures Past
To beat the very best, you must first defeat your previous losses.
Coaches pore through everything. Nothing is just thrown out because of a score or a circumstance. WKU's confidence in their "Shotions" didn't just come from their own success against previous opponents. By digging through countless hours of film on Alabama, almost all of it from blowout Tide wins in which the defense went berserk, they've found weak spots.
When asked independently, several coaches endorse the Florida and Tennessee games from 2011. Alabama mauled a Tyler Bray-less Vols team 37-6 and knocked John Brantley out en route to a 38-10 win over the Gators. Both teams were without quality quarterback play and out-manned, but both were able to cause Bama's defense confusion on a per-play basis once the score was out of hand using shifts and motions.
Sure enough, deep in a series of cut-ups, specifically when UT and UF used U or 22 personnel (two backs, two tight ends), you can see either Saban or Smart screaming madly on the sidelines, with more than one defensive back looking to them as the ball is snapped. And just like that, for just a single play in an otherwise meaningless rout, you can plainly see open spots to attack in the impossible Alabama defense. The offensive coaches are also confident that they're on the right path because both Florida and Tennessee are coached by ex-Saban assistants Will Muschamp and Derek Dooley.
"You can see times on here when Tennessee moved and everybody [on the Alabama defense] was trying to talk to each other and Tennessee was ready to go," Taggart says. "I think they’re so locked in, so zoned in to how they play everyone else, and then when you get a team that moves a lot, it goes against some of the principles of that defense."
The best indicator of potential success might be WKU's loss last year at LSU in November. That means entering Saturday's game, WKU will have played the No. 1 team in the country twice in five games. Again, the final score must be considered arbitrary; It was 42-9, but LSU led 14-7 at the half and won time of possession by 10 minutes. Western, despite a gross disadvantage in player-by-player comparisons of talent, had clearly still schemed the game correctly. Down 21-9 and driving, though, Jakes had a pass tipped and intercepted. Starting in WKU territory, LSU drove quickly for a 28-9 lead late in the third. The Tigers tacked on two more rushing touchdowns as WKU wore down late with the lead out of reach.
"We turned the ball over, and that’s huge," he says. "You can’t do that against anyone. The biggest thing for us is turning the ball over. We do that and we can’t beat these guys. We’ll have a chance if we don’t turn it over. You just have to be smart. You have to be patient. They’re going to stop you at times and you can’t go out of your framework. We’re going to be patient and do what we do and try and play field position and move the sticks rather than try to get a touchdown on just one play and get first downs. Ten yards is all we need."
Lesson 7: Don't Forget, You Have To Actually Believe
To beat the best team in college football, you truly have to believe you can do it, whether you can or not.
All the way back on Monday, when Taggart was just starting his PR efforts, he cut off a sports talk radio host from Nashville as his interview segment was ending. The final statement sounded a little too much like condolences for Taggart's liking.
"Y'all sound down on the Hilltoppers! We're gonna be just fine. The Toppers bow to no man and no program!" he concluded.
Taggart hung up and sighed. He'd done the interview in the middle of a passing offense meeting while the rest of his staff pored over potential ideas. He'd joshed about the bravado of his team so much that it could be considered possible to perceive sarcasm, that Taggart didn't actually believe.
The room was quiet for a while before returning to discussion about pass play selection for 3rd and 7-to-10 yards. Then just as the focus returned to the chart of potential calls, Taggart quietly sang the theme to "SportsCenter."
Taggart stared at nothing, and his face grew serious for the first time that day.
"Upset alert in Tuscaloosa ... with 1:20 remaining in the fourth quarter, Western Kentucky has the lead ... it's 4th and 10 for Alabama..."
A Final Review
Lesson: Why Nick Saban Wins