TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama offensive line coach Joe Pendry briskly walked behind his starting unit as it hit the blocking sleds Tuesday afternoon.
“Quicker, quicker,” he barked in the direction of right guard Barrett Jones.
Heading into this season’s final three regular-season games, the ability of Pendry’s guys to step it up will go a long way toward determining where Alabama plays its bowl game.
It starts Saturday with No. 17 Mississippi State coming to Bryant-Denny Stadium a week after crucial mistakes on the line contributed to the Crimson Tide’s 24-21 loss at LSU.
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“We were late off the ball some,” head coach Nick Saban said. “That’s been a little bit of an issue when we play on the road. We were late off the ball, and they were a quick defense that probably put us at a disadvantage a few times.”
Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy has been sacked 25 times this year, including three times against LSU. The first two Saturday killed possessions, but none was more costly than the final one, when LSU’s Drake Nevis came straight through the middle of the offensive line, hit McElroy and forced the fumble that turned into a field goal and the final margin of victory.
Communication was an issue, and the deafening crowd noise that makes LSU’s Death Valley legendary was certainly a factor. Playing this regular season’s final three games at home, that won’t be a major problem for the line, but lessons still were taken away from the experience.
“You might make a call, then they shift to a defense,” starting left guard Chance Warmack said. “Then you might make a different call, depending on what that defense is, and the quarterback might change the play, so some offensive linemen might not get that. We’re going on the first play when it is supposed to be on the second play. It’s just the little things that we need to work on.”
Protection breaks down, and McElroy has an unfriendly visitor in his personal bubble real quick.
Through nine games last season, Alabama was 10th-best nationally in protecting the quarterback from sacks, surrendering one per game; this year’s group is tied for 100th, allowing 2.8 per game.
But as Saban has repeated several times this fall, this year’s team is not the same as the group that won 14 games and a national title in 2009, and not every sack can be pinned on the offensive line. Saban has said McElroy held on to the ball too long earlier in the year, taking a sack instead of throwing away the ball.
Still, the loss of veterans Mike Johnson and Drew Davis is a factor, and replacements are young. Warmack, who filled Johnson’s job, is a sophomore; redshirt freshman D.J. Fluker and junior Alfred McCullough have starts at Davis’ former spot.
Mississippi State defenders have spent more time in the opposing backfield in the past two games, recording six sacks combined against UAB and Kentucky. Averaging 2.1 sacks per game, the Bulldogs rank second in the conference while Alabama’s defense is last in the league and No. 105 nationally with 1.2 sacks per game.
The offensive linemen also have been penalized more this year. They have been flagged for holding seven times, including five in the past three games after last season’s team went the final 9 1/2 games without one blocking infraction.
Then there is a drop in the running game’s production that has been a surprising issue. The Tide hasn’t enforced its will as easily with the run despite returning both top backs.
Center William Vlachos can’t identify the culprit.
“Is it the line’s fault? Is it the play-calling? Is it Mark’s knee?” Vlachos said. “There’s probably something everyone wants to put their finger on to address that, but it’s a lot of things. It’s a ton of things that unless you know a ton of things about football, you probably wouldn’t really understand. It’s just about everybody doing their job. We are a power-running team first. That’s our M.O. as a team and what we try to do to opponents.”