O.J. Howard saw it live, while Eddie Jackson claims he was already in the visiting locker room.
It doesn’t really matter where either of the Alabama seniors was on that October day in 2014 when Ole Miss fans swarmed onto the field at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium — by now the scene has already been burned into memory.
That day, a blue and red sea of freshly-pressed J. Crew slacks and sundresses poured its way out of the stands, soaking up the Rebels’ 23-17 upset win over the Crimson Tide long after the home goal posts were torn down.
“It was a disappointing feeling,” Howard said. “I was part of the last play of the game, so it was pretty bad on my part, too. It was just a bad experience.”
Don’t believe any Alabama player who says Saturday’s return to Oxford, Miss., is “just another game.”
When asked if he was on the field after the game in 2014, Alabama defensive end Jonathan Allen said no. The senior then growled to himself for a couple of seconds before fielding the next question.
The sting wasn’t softened any by a 43-37 loss to the Rebels last season in Bryant-Denny Stadium, which saw the Tide turn the ball over five times.
“It was completely on us,” Allen said. “We had too many turnovers, too many busted assignments. That’s the biggest thing from last year.”
During his news conference Monday, Alabama head coach Nick Saban said he wanted his players to focus on execution rather than emotion. However, even he won’t pretend to ignore the importance of Saturday’s matchup.
“I’m not saying this is like any other game,” Saban said. “It’s the most important game that we play because it’s a game that we’re playing this week against a very, very good team. But it’s important every week that you have the right sense of urgency, the right mental intensity, the right immediacy about, ‘I’ve got to do this right now.’ These are all, do you call them emotional or do you call them, sort of, mindsets that get you to perform well. I think creating a bunch of anxiety with players is not the best way to go when it comes to being able to perform well.”
Saban can only do so much to harness his team’s mentality. The rest is up to Alabama’s players.
Allen said an overwhelming sense of revenge hindered the team last season, as players put more focus on payback than their responsibilities on the field. This year, the Tide’s veteran players are looking to make sure the team approaches the game with the right mindset.
“I just feel like everyone needs to be more focused for this game and this week,” Jackson said. “We need to come out with the right mindset and be ready to prepare and improve.”
Alabama players know they will need to be focused from the start Saturday. In its first two games this season, the Tide’s offense has sputtered early before picking things up later in the game. Alabama might not have that luxury this week, as it faces an Ole Miss team that has outscored its opponents 52-16 in the first half this season.
Last year, an inability to move the ball early costs the Tide, as the Rebels stormed out to a 30-10 lead before Alabama finally got its offense going.
“We can’t have any nerves,” Howard said. “We just got to be patient, do what coach asks us to do, execute the plays that are called. Just get the ball to our playmakers. Up front, we got to block and allow our running backs to be great.”
A fast start would also go a long way toward minimizing a hostile environment. That could be crucial for the Tide, which will most likely hand true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts his first SEC start. Saban said the team would work on dealing with crowd noise during practice this week.
“The fans are going to be pretty intense like last time,” Howard said. “We’ve just got to go out there with our poise and do what we do. We have to execute plays that are going to be called and I think when we do that well it eliminates the fans.”
Alabama’s ability to do that might mean the difference between watching Ole Miss’ fans exit towards the parking lot instead of the field.
That’s a sight all Tide players might stick around for.
Tony Tsoukalas writes for the Anniston Star. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.