October 6, 2007

Tide stems Cougars rally

Alabama coach Nick Saban's favorite I-word since he took over the UA football program has been identity, his buzzword for the Crimson Tide's developing character.

Saturday, he had to settle for a different I-word: improvement.

Alabama dispatched Houston 30-24 at Bryant-Denny Stadium with a rediscovery of two elements missing entirely from a loss to Florida State a week earlier: a running game and a pass rush. Both played a key role in Alabama's ability to cling to a second-half lead that nearly disappeared.

"They [Alabama's pass rush] did a good job especially in the first half," Saban said. "They [Houston] take those big splits so that helps you get a rush a little bit. … I thought we did get more consistent pressure today."

Alabama recorded a season-high five sacks. Senior Wallace Gilberry, in an 11-tackle performance that was his best of the season, was credited with two of them. Lorenzo Washington, Brandon Deaderick, and Darren Mustin recorded one sack each.

Glen Coffee made his first career start and responded with career highs in carries (30) and yards (121). Terry Grant played very little after a first-half fumble, and finished with season-lows of three carries and 12 yards. Coffee never broke a run longer than nine yards, but his steady play kept the Crimson Tide in more manageable down-and-distance situations.

"I don't want to say anyone is behind me, but there is always someone to your left and your right that can go in and do a good job [at running back]," Coffee said of his most extensive playing time of the season. "That's why you've got to know what you're supposed to be doing every play."

Improvements aside, post-game remarks from Saban and Alabama players included as much discussion about what Alabama failed to accomplish as what it gained from the victory. Saban compared Houston's furious comeback with the 31-10 lead Alabama held over Arkansas that also slipped away.

Saban termed those comfortable leads "relief syndrome", while Houston coach Art Briles blamed his team's poor first-quarter play.

"We have got to learn to start faster on both sides of the ball," Briles said. "We did not start good last week … and did the same thing today."

Had Alabama held on to a slim lead against a more formidable opponent, the players' mood might have carried a different vibe. Indeed, the identity Saban is so fond of talking about can't be forged on Homecoming against a Conference-USA upstart. No, the sort of identity Saban seeks needs a foe like Tennessee or Auburn for its foundation.

It needs a game that rattles the Southeastern Conference standings.

It needs an audience bigger than the pay-per-view crowd that watched the Cougars take all the feel-good out of what was supposed to be a feel-good win.

The identity makers, undoubtedly, come later on the schedule. But if improvement was all that could be had out of Saturday's victory, the Crimson Tide indeed made some. Coffee's 121-yard effort came behind a shuffled offensive line that featured first-time starter Evan Cardwell at center, and Antoine Caldwell playing out of position at right guard. DJ Hall knocked Freddie Milons from the top of the Crimson Tide's all-time receptions list with his final catch, the 153rd of his career. And Simeon Castille picked a game-clinching moment to notch his first interception since 2006.

Whatever step was taken, it went forward. But the direction of the next step - in back-to-back SEC games against Ole Miss and Tennessee - is the one that will be noticed.

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