Even No. 1 Alabama needs help from role players
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — Even a team loaded with talent like No. 1 Alabama needs lesser-known players to step up big sometimes.
Tana Patrick, Jalston Fowler and freshman tight end O.J. Howard delivered in a prime-time showdown with LSU, accounting for three touchdowns either prevented or scored in a victory decided by precisely that margin.
Only Howard seems likely to become a star among that trio.
Patrick, a senior reserve linebacker, came up with the biggest play of his Crimson Tide career when he stripped the ball from No. 18 LSU’s fullback J.C. Copeland, who appeared headed for the end zone. It came when the game was still close and before Alabama (9-0, 6-0 Southeastern Conference), which visits Mississippi State on Saturday, heated up in a 38-17 win.
“It made me feel really good, just to contribute to the team,” Patrick said. “And to give us the momentum after that.”
Sure, All-America linebacker C.J. Mosley had a huge performance in one of Alabama’s biggest games, AJ McCarron threw three touchdown passes and T.J. Yeldon ran for 133 yards and two TDs.
But the Tide almost certainly wouldn’t have won so comfortably without the help of those players who are mostly unknown outside the state.
Patrick is one of the team’s hardest hitters and plays mostly in goal line situations. He has 36 career tackles and, now, one forced fumble.
“Tana has been a guy that whatever his role has been here, he’s been willing to play,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “He never gets disappointed, never gets frustrated. He’s always upbeat and positive. He’s played for us all year on the goal line.
“That was certainly a huge play in the game early on when we weren’t playing well. It made a huge difference in the outcome of the game, too, I’m sure. We’re very excited and happy to see him make the play but it was great for our team as well.”
Fowler, who even Saban calls by his childhood nickname “Nudie,” is a formidable lead blocker who gets few carries but has scored on four of his five receptions this season.
He missed most of last season with a knee injury. McCarron has often found him slipping out of the backfield in goal line situations.
“We have some good play-action pass plays. Guys do a really good job of getting open, especially Nudie,” McCarron said. “He’s really good coming out of the backfield and gets lost a lot of times. That helps us out.”
Then there’s Howard, who seems to have the makings of a future star. The 6-foot-6, 237-pounder raced for a 52-yard touchdown against LSU, flashing impressive speed for his size.
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said he “just watched him run away from LSU’s entire defense on one play.”
Veteran Brian Vogler has started every game, and Howard has three starts when Alabama opens with two tight ends. Howard was one of the Tide’s most highly rated signees in the latest recruiting class and has 11 catches for 225 yards and two touchdowns.
“He’s one of those guys when they first get here on campus you see what he does and you think, ‘Okay, this guy is something special,’” Alabama left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio said. “He’s showing flashes of things that guys who have been here five years can’t do. I am really proud of him for stepping up in the LSU game.
“I talked to him before the game and he was a little nervous. The big LSU game and he’s just come from high school, a freshman, and he came out of his shell and did what he was trained to do, and we’re all proud of him for that.”
Saban said players like Patrick and Fowler also don’t go unnoticed by coaches or teammates, even if they don’t get much TV time. And sometimes they’re involved in the handful of plays Saban always says can change a game.
“I think there’s a lot of guys that do a great job on our team that don’t get a lot of attention,” the coach said. “Just because all of a sudden these guys do something that maybe deserves a little attention on their part, doesn’t mean that they’re not very well appreciated by all their coaches and all their teammates, because their role on the team is very much appreciated.”