Tide Comes Up Short

There is a reason Alabama's football team was in the Music City Bowl. Though the Crimson Tide fought hard every week, Bama was just not a very good football team in 2004. Minnesota was the better of two mediocre teams Friday and defeated Alabama, 20-16, in Nashville on New Year's Eve.

It was somewhat typical of the season in that Alabama had a chance to win a game it probably didn't deserve to win. But given that chance, Bama couldn't make the winning play. Thus, Alabama finishes the year at 6-6.

It was no surprise that Alabama had almost no running game, and for the most part no efficient offense. But it was surprising that the Crimson Tide defense took over half the game to begin to slow down the Golden Gophers offense; or, to be precise, the running combination of Marion Barber III and Laurence Maroney.

Although Minnesota's offense started with a miscue–Barber fumbling and presenting Bama with an easy touchdown opportunity–both Barber, who was the game's most valuable player, and Maroney punished Bama on the ground. The two 1,000-yard rushers both went over 100 yards, Barber in the first half and finishing with 187, and Maroney with 105.

But most of that Minnesota offense came in the first three quarters. And when Alabama was down to its last opportunity the defense stepped up, holding the Gophers on downs inside the Minnesota 20. Leading 20-14, the Gophers made the correct play of taking a safety and getting a free kick from the 20 with just over three minutes to play.

Tyrone Prothro got the Tide's final chance off to a great start when he returned that kick 17 yards to the Minnesota 48.

Alabama was out of timeouts and so went to a two-minute drill. Quarterback Spencer Pennington, who had a big day statistically, worked very well in hitting Prothro for 12 yards, Kenneth Darby (who played only 14 snaps and had only one rush) for nine, and Ezekial Knight for eight and a first down at the Minnesota 19 with over two minutes to play.

But the Tide was unable to cash in. On a third-and-six, Prothro was open in the end zone, but Pennington's pass sailed high. When the fourth down pass was incomplete, the Gophers had only to kill the clock to make Minnesota's record 7-5.

It should have some as no surprise that Alabama failed on the third down play. For the day Bama was 0-11 on third down attempts. The Tide was also unsuccessful on two fourth down attempts.

Minnesota had 23 first downs to Alabama's 13 and 85 plays for 351 yards to Bama's 57 plays for 264 yards. The Gophers had over a 15-minute advantage in time of possession, 37:54 to 22:06.

Alabama got a huge break in the opening minute when Barber fumbled the ball at the Minnesota 20. The ball got booted down to the Minnesota two, where linebacker Freddie Roach fell on it. On first down with three tight ends in front of a makeshift "jumbo" backfield of LeRon McClain and Josh Smith, Pennington hit McClain for the touchdown.

Minnesota would have two more first quarter turnovers after driving deep into Alabama territory, but Bama would return the favor and provide the Gophers with their first points.

Bama couldn't move after Roman Harper's interception at the Alabama 14. The Gophers drove down to the Tide four where a halfback pass by Barber was intercepted, Anthony Madison grabbing it in the end zone. Had Madison gone down in the end zone, it probably would have been better, but he instinctively began running and the Tide was backed up at its two. Trying to pass, Pennington was hit and fumbled and the ball was recovered by Minnesota defensive end Keith Lipka for a tying touchdown.

Alabama's offense seemed to respond after the kickoff when Pennington hit D.J. Hall for a 14 yard gain to the Tide 29, then hit Prothro on a 35-yarder. But Prothro fumbled at the end of the play. Minnesota certainly benefitted from a roughing the passer call and may have benefitted from a missed call on an apparent fumble a few minutes later, but the Gophers' drive ended early in the second quarter with Barber going in from five yards out and a 14-7 Minnesota lead.

On more than one occasion Minnesota abandoned its potent running attack to let the Gophers' quarterback, Bryan Cupito, try his hand, and this was usually to Bama's benefit. In additon to the interception thrown from the four, Cupito had short passes batted down in the end zone. Two of those came on Minnesota's next possession and as a result the Gophers had to settle for a Rhys Lloyd field goal and a 17-7 lead.

Alabama's offense showed a pulse in overcoming a holding penalty to drive 73 yards in 10 plays for a touchdown with just under three minutes to play. Pennington hit Prothro for 19 yards on a second-and-18 and found Keith Brown, who made a nifty move to get down the sideline for 40 yards to the Minnesota six. A personal foul helped Bama get a little closer and then McClain went in from a yard out to pull Bama to within 17-14 at intermission.

Minnesota got another field goal on its first possession of the second half to gain a six-point advantage. But a 31-yard field goal that probably would have put the game away with 5:34 to play in the game was wide right.

Although Bama couldn't move on that possession, Bo Freelend–who had missed pre-bowl practice with a knee injury and who had been benched for two punts earlier in the game–got away with a bad kick that rolled to the Minnesota 10. That set up Bama's defensive heroics and the dramatic finish that fell just short.

It is a measure of Alabama's rushing anemia that the leading runner for Bama was wide receiver Keith Brown, who had 17 yards on an end-around. Aaron Johns, the freshman who started the year as Bama's fourth halfback but was number one in preparation for the Music City Bowl, had six carries for only 15 yards. McClain had six carries for only seven yards.

Pennington hit 22 of 36 passes for 243 yards and did not suffer an interception.

Prothro had four receptions for 82 yards, Brown three for 56, and Hall five for 51. In addition to his receiving yards, Prothro had two punt returns for 10 yards and four kickoff returns for 74 yards. He also had three rushes–one from his one play at quarterback–but managed only minus three yards total.

Roman Harper led Bama with 14 tackles, including one for a loss of nine yards. DeMeco Ryans was in on 13 tackles, including a game-high 10 primary stops, and linebacker Cornelius Wortham was also in on 13 tackles. Charlie Peprah had 11 tackles, also with 10 primary.

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