Just 14 hours after “mayhem” filled the Alabama team hotel following No. 2 Oklahoma State’s stunning loss, the third-ranked Crimson Tide received a scare from FCS power Georgia Southern.
A party still followed the 45-21 win over the run-first, run-second Eagles. It just lacked the chaos of the night before, though it officially marked the beginning of Iron Bowl week.
Alabama led just 31-21 midway through the third quarter, scoring twice after that to avoid the scare.
Georgia Southern created the tension by running for more yards in the first half than any Alabama opponent. The nation’s top rushing defense surrendered 302 yards, more than double the 148 tallied by No. 1 LSU two weeks ago.
Tide senior Brandon Gibson said the events of Friday night played no factor by the 1 p.m. kickoff in front of a less-than capacity crowd.
“Anything can happen, as you can tell,” said Gibson, who caught four passes for 49 yards. “Who would have thought this team would score 21 points on us? They’re a great team. They played with no fear. Anything can happen any week.”
That was the message coach Nick Saban delivered in a Saturday-morning speech to the team still excited about being right back in the BCS national title hunt.
By game time, a beat-up Alabama defense took the occasional beating from the unconventional triple-option attack. An injury to starting nose guard Josh Chapman, food-poisoning for Jesse Williams and a suspension for Nick Gentry, Brandon Ivory took most of the snaps in only his fourth game of the season.
Neutralizing the speed and athleticism of Alabama’s defense, the Golden Eagles ran 39 times while throwing just seven passes — scoring on its only completion.
Alabama (10-1) pounded back with Trent Richardson. For the second straight week, the Heisman candidate ran a season-high 32 times to total 175 yards and three touchdowns.
The Tide didn’t punt for the first time all season by ending six drives with touchdowns, one with a field goal and another with a missed Cade Foster kick from 47 yards.
Senior tight end Brad Smelley added two touchdown receptions from AJ McCarron, who was an efficient 14-for-19 for 190 yards.
The 21 points scored by Georgia Southern were slightly more notable, though. It was the most for any Tide opponent since the 28-27 loss to Auburn a year ago.
Running back Dominique Swope’s 82-yard touchdown cut the lead to 17-7 early in the second quarter. The fullback, who ran for 153 yards total, burst through a hope on the right side and avoided the secondary to stun the Bryant-Denny Stadium crowd.
The only Eagle completed pass of the game caused even more unrest just before halftime. Quarterback Jaybo Shaw executed the option pass to perfection by hitting running back Jonathan Bryant in stride and cut the lead to 24-14.
Saban explained the difficulty for a cornerback to adjust cover receivers who had been blockers all game. Safety Mark Barron was rolling over for support, but fell as the 39-yard pass crossed the goal line.
Most disappointing, Saban said, was the 95-yard kickoff Eagle Laron Scott returned for a touchdown to cut it to 31-21 with 7:03 left in the third. But he couldn’t say enough about the efficiency of the Georgia Southern flexbone offense.
“Even though I thought the scout team did a really good job giving us a look at this, it happens a lot faster than what you see in practice,” Saban said. “The ball gets on the perimeter quicker. The lead blockers get out there faster. The big problem was that we didn’t have support and we got chopped a lot.”
Focus now shifts away from the dueling celebrations of this weekend and straight to the challenge of the one ahead for the Tide.
Iron Bowls don’t need extra hype, so having national championship implications or the third straight year only adds to it. After blowing the 24-point lead to the Tigers a year ago, linebacker Dont’a Hightower said no extra motivation is necessary.
“I’m looking for full redemption,” he said. “I know those guys will come at us like it’s the national championship, pulling all the tricks out of the bag.”
Michael Casagrande covers University of Alabama sports for The Star. Follow him on Twitter @ UARollTide_Star