TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The dreaded sight of the trainer’s cart never appeared in Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
With the potential injury crisis avoided, the pleasant fall afternoon belonged to the Crimson Tide backups and seniors.
Oh, and Alabama beat Chattanooga 45-0.
Less than a week before traveling to Auburn for the Iron Bowl, keeping players healthy almost made the final score an afterthought in the non-conference game against the Football Championship Subdivision opponent.
Offensive starters played just a half — some less than that — as it devastated the overmatched Chattanooga defense after a surprising three-and-out first possession. The second-ranked Tide (11-0) scored on its next four with a Javier Arenas punt return touchdown thrown in the middle to start the call for backups.
In all, 66 players saw the field, including all 25 healthy seniors, who played their final home game Saturday.
“It was good to get in and get a nice day’s work and then let some other guys get carries,” running back Mark Ingram said of his 102-yard day that ended with a 40-yard touchdown run with 9:53 left in the second quarter.
Since 74 percent of Alabama’s offense came on running plays, there was plenty of carries to go around. After Ingram, three others ran for at least 60 yards led by senior Roy Upchurch’s 79, Demetrius Goode’s 70, all coming in the second half. Trent Richardson was a spark in the first half as he finished with nine runs and 60 yards and the game’s first touchdown.
Defensively, Alabama handled several new wrinkles in the Chattanooga offense to complete its first shutout since last season’s 36-0 win at Auburn. The Mocs regularly emptied the backfield and occasionally overloaded one side with four receivers. Although quarterback B.J. Coleman was never sacked, he was hurried nine times and threw two of the three Chattanooga interceptions.
“There is no question they are faster (than other opponents),” said Coleman, a transfer from Tennessee. “Their front four have been able to get pressure all year and when you add in elements like (Rolando) McClain and corner blitzes and safeties dropping, they are among the best in the country in doing that.”
McClain’s seven tackles and three quarterback hurries paced the starters, who were actually outshined by their backups. The Mocs scaled back some of its playcalling in the second half, but the reserves held the visitors to just 17 second-half yards. Chattanooga finished with 84 total yards, and five first downs — two of which came on penalties.
The Alabama passing game accounted for just 109 yards, but brought a quick burst of excitement to Bryant-Denny Stadium, which had more empty seats than usual. First, Julio Jones took advantage of rare one-on-one coverage on the first play of the Tide’s third possession to haul in a 44-yard catch on a play-action fake.
Ingram scored on the next play when he broke three tackles and drug one defender the final few yards for a 25-yard touchdown run.
Then, three plays after a Cory Reamer interception, Jones pulled in a 19-yard touchdown pass to put the Tide ahead 21-0 after one quarter.
From there, it was academic.
Arenas added a 66-yard punt return for a touchdown and Ingram’s 40-yard run left Alabama leading 35-0 at halftime when the bench was cleared and McElroy went back to wearing a head set on the sidelines as he had for the three previous seasons.
Star Jackson, who lost the competition for the starter’s job to McElroy in the spring, took care of all but the final few snaps of the second half. He threw just five times, completing four, while leading two scoring drives.
Now the focus can shift to Auburn, which had a bye Saturday. Since the game was moved from Saturday to Friday for TV, Alabama has one fewer day to prepare than usual.
But nobody in the Alabama interview room was worried about that Saturday.
Everyone appeared relieved to be healthy and relatively well rested after cruising to win No. 11 on a day nearly everyone contributed.