No one could blame Nick Saban. He was less than thrilled following his top-ranked Alabama team’s lackluster 31-3 win over Chattanooga Saturday night at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
“That wasn’t probably our best effort,” he began at his post-game press conference, “but I think you have to give Chattanooga’s players a lot of credit. They really played hard. They played well, and they played with a lot of grit and toughness. We knew this would be a challenge for us at this point in the season to get our guys to play at a high level, even though we wanted to build on the momentum (from last week’s Mississippi State win) and get everybody’s confidence where it would be really good going into next week (against Auburn).
“I thought our players responded a little better in the second half. The defense obviously played pretty well in giving up just three points. We had a couple of miscues on a couple of passes early in the game. Offensively, we didn’t have a whole lot of consistency, and we definitely need to do better with that.
“I think there’s a lot of lessons to be learned. You can talk to the players as much as you want about (upsets). You can go on and on. This happens all the time in college football, because if you’re not really ready to play, or prepare well to play, it’s very difficult when you don’t have high energy and intensity, to compete in the kind of a game (against an FCS team). The other team, they’ve got a historical moment when they come in and play you. They can make history by doing something special. It’s a very big game for them. The good news is there’s a lot of lessons we can learn from this game. We’ve just got to get ourselves ready to play a very good opponent next week (in the Iron Bowl). It’s a very challenging game for us, and we need to get our team refocused and re-centered. I think everybody will be ready to do just that.”
Saban said his team not being prepared was not something he saw in pre-game warmups. “I worried about it all week long,” he said. “When you’re playing conference games every week, and you play in big games every week, it’s really hard to get guys not to have a letdown. When you use the word ‘just,’ (like) ‘just’ racing against this guy, or ‘just’ playing this team… You set yourself up for thinking something’s going to be easy. You can be complacent, and you don’t have to have the same kind of energy level to go play the game. I think that’s deeply rooted. It didn’t happen in pre-game warmup.
“We started out fast on offense, but (the Mocs) played hard, and you get frustrated a little bit. The defensive guys hung in there, and only gave up three points. That was a pretty good job by them, but we just have to do a little better, but look, I’m proud of team. Our team won 11 games so far. We’ve had great competitive character. We’ve had to play some really tough games in some really tough places, and they came through when they needed to. I’m responsible for how they played today. If we didn’t improve, that’s my fault, and I’ll take responsibility for it. Maybe we weren’t perfect today, but we still won 31-3.”
Saban didn’t feel he could tell the whole story of his half time talk to the team with Bama up 14-3 on the FCS school. “I don’t know that I should tell you that,” he quipped. “I don’t know that I can tell you that, but I can tell you part of it. I said, ‘Do you believe me now?’, because I’d been telling them all week (not to let down). The rest of it, I think we’d better bleep out.
“I think everybody in this (media) room understands motivation. I think sometimes you’re motivated to do certain things really well, and sometimes other things aren’t really important to you, and you don’t focus like you should. You don’t prepare like you should. You don’t have mental energy and intensity you need to do certain things as well as you do other things. I think when you go through a (long) season, it’s very difficult to have a team be like this (hand raised up) every game. We weren’t (up) today, which is my responsibility. It’s mental energy and intensity. I see it in practice. I see it in how guys pay attention in meetings, attention to detail, and how they prepare. All those things are indicators of how important something is to them. It doesn’t start when the game starts, or in pre-game warmup. It starts for us, like ‘How bad do you want to win the game?’ on Monday. That tells me how we’re going to be on Saturday.
“Everybody wanted to win the game today. They just didn’t think they had to go out there and do a whole lot to do it. They got put on notice for that, and no matter how much you try to tell them, sometimes they don’t hear it right.”
Injury-wise, Saban had info, and he had a disciplinary tidbit, too. When the game ended, the Tide was down to its third left tackle, as tight end Brandon Green saw time there before shifting over to right tackle in favor of freshman Jonah Williams. Starter Cam Robinson and swing tackle/guard Korren Kirven both left the game in the fourth quarter. “Both those guys had a little shoulder problem,” Saban said. “We think they’ll be OK. ‘Doc’ is going to continue to evaluate it, and we’ll make sure they’re going to be OK. We expect them both to be able to play next week.”
On wide receiver Ardarius Stewart, who dressed but did not play, Saban said the junior was not injured. “He’s fine. Sometimes we have players that have a violation of our standard of behavior, and … everybody wants to play. Sometimes when you have that (violation), you just tell guys, ‘We’re not going to play you.’”
Stewart’s absence had a direct effect on the passing game, as quarterback Jalen Hurts threw for but 136 yards on 15-21 passing. Saban said, “I didn’t think we had the consistency we need to have in the passing game. We were late on some throws. We took shots (downfield) early in the game. We hit one (when Hurts found Calvin Ridley for a 47-yard score), but we didn’t’ make the others. The (pass) protection wasn’t very good. We broke out of the pocket a couple of times when we had people open. I think there’s a lot of work to be done there. I think we’re making progress, but we have work to do.”
Saban said he knew the FCS’ top-ranked secondary would present a challenge. “They do a very good job. Their guys break on the ball,” he said. “They do a very good job of reading the quarterback’s eyes, and they do a pretty good job of mixing up their coverages. That makes it a little bit difficult for the quarterback. It’s mostly split safety stuff, but they do it in different ways. The combinations are difficult for the quarterback to read sometimes, and I think a couple of times we had throws that we didn’t throw. We were afraid to pull the trigger, but there’s lessons to be learned. We can get better from it.”
Graduate transfer receiver Gehrig Dieter had a unique stat line: three catches, one yard and two touchdowns. Asked about Dieter’s production or lack thereof this season, Saban seemed perturbed by the question. “I think the guy’s done a fantastic job for us,” Saban said. “When you say, ‘He hasn’t had the production that you expect,’ who set the expectation? You? Or me? I think you did, because by my expectation is the guy has done a really good job. He does a good job of blocking. He does everything we ask him to do. I think he dropped one pass early in the year that would have been a big play, but otherwise, I think he’s done a good job. If you just say production is about how many passes you catch, I don’t think we’ve had anybody for a long time that caught as many passes as they would like to catch or as many as we would like for them to catch, but it wasn’t their fault. Now, we’re developing that, and I’ve got a lot of confidence in (Dieter), and he’s done a really good job for us.”
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