Offense comes to life after sluggish first half
By MICHAEL CASAGRANDE
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Greg McElroy couldn’t miss, Trent Richardson was running wild and the No. 4 Alabama defense was punishing Florida International physically.
Despite all that, the Crimson Tide (2-0) wasn’t able to start feeling comfortable until the final 19 minutes of Saturday night’s 40-14 victory.
That’s when the highly touted freshman Richardson rushed for a 9-yard touchdown, followed shortly by a 35-yarder, and fourth-team tailback Terry Grant sprung free for a 42-yarder to bail out a short-handed offense. The 33-point underdog FIU (0-1) could only watch.
Still, it wasn’t quite the breezy game Alabama fans likely were anticipating until that onslaught, especially after No. 1 Florida decimated FIU’s Sun Belt Conference rival Troy 56-6 earlier in the day. But they had to hang around until the fourth quarter before resting easy.
“The focus in games like this is to improve,” Tide coach Nick Saban said. “They took it right to us. I don’t think our guys came out with the kind of energy and enthusiasm and intensity that we need to set the tone, and we allowed them to stay in the game by some mistakes that we made.”
The Tide led just 20-14 before getting the big plays from Richardson, who gained 118 yards on 15 carries in his first significant action.
McElroy completed a school-record 14 consecutive passes before finishing 18-of-24 passing for 241 yards, including a 24-yard touchdown to Mike McCoy. The previous school mark of 12 consecutive completions was shared by John Parker Wilson and Andrew Zow. The string ended when the first-year starter tried a bomb to Marquis Maze in the end zone in the third quarter.
“I had no idea until the end of the game,” McElroy said. “A big reason was the playcalling and the ability of the guys to get open. I can’t say it’s really overwhelming. I have a lot of confidence in my abilities.
“Getting the record was nice.”
Putting FIU away with a punishing running game was even better.
“Teams try to hang with us as long as they can,” McElroy said. “We wear them down in the fourth quarter.”
Alabama had five sacks and numerous hits on FIU quarterback Paul McCall but also gave up T.Y. Hilton’s 96-yard kick return for a touchdown and some big third-down plays.
McCall finished 16 of 32 for 189 yards and a touchdown.
Alabama’s own dynamic return man had a big impact late in the game.
Javier Arenas set up both of Richardon’s scores with punt returns of 20 and 46 yards giving it to the offense at midfield or better each time.
Alabama’s offense wasn’t fully loaded, but still managed to generate 516 yards. Florida International was limited to just 1 yard on 26 rushes and had 214 total yards.
Tide tailback Mark Ingram gained 56 yards on 10 carries and had four catches for 47 yards after battling the flu during the week. Senior Roy Upchurch made his first career start but left with a sprained ankle.
Star receiver Julio Jones sat out most of the game with a bruised right knee sustained when it was hit on a reverse play. He finished with just one catch for 9 yards before heading to the bench, and Saban said he didn’t know his status. In his absence, McCoy caught five passes for a career-high 100 yards — all in the first half.
“Most of what he caught was what we planned to throw to No. 8 (Jones),” Saban said.
FIU stayed within a touchdown and PAT of the lead after Leigh Tiffin missed a 39-yard field goal midway through the third.
FIU left Tide fans in stunned silence when McCall’s 9-yard touchdown pass to Greg Ellingson on third-and-goal gave the Panthers a 14-13 lead early in the second quarter.
Alabama breathed some life into the crowd with a five-play TD drive capped by Ingram’s 2-yard run to move ahead 20-14 at halftime.
“It was a real, real hard-fought game and a real good effort by our guys, particularly in the first half,” FIU coach Mario Cristobal said. “But we have to hold up in protection a little more in the second half.
“The Crimson Tide really plays good football and they played good football again tonight when they had to win the football game.”