Tide coordinator builds offense around personnel

Published 10:14 pm Monday, December 29, 2008

NEW ORLEANS — Jim McElwain has built Alabama’s offense around punch not pizzaz.

The Crimson Tide offensive coordinator readily admits as much, even playfully suggesting adjectives to describe the attack: “Boring? Lackluster?”

Physical and effective would be more accurate for McElwain & Co. The first-year offensive coordinator’s boring, lackluster offense has helped propel No. 4 Alabama (12-1) into the Sugar Bowl Friday night against Utah one pounding run and play-action pass at a time.

“It’s about winning,” McElwain said Monday. “The ego part, and the numbers, it just doesn’t matter. It’s whatever it takes to win the game. And obviously, we didn’t win them all, and that really bothers me, because that’s what we should do.”

The Tide’s only loss came to Florida in the Southeastern Conference championship game. McElwain has still proven one of coach Nick Saban’s best recruits since coming to Alabama from Fresno State even with an offense that offers little flash.

He has had a somewhat low profile publicly since Saban had only allowed McElwain to speak to the media once since his hiring, and that was before the season.

He hasn’t always applied the old-fashioned offensive philosophy at his coaching stops. But Alabama’s strength was an offensive line that includes two first-team All-Americans, left tackle Andre Smith — who was suspended for the Sugar Bowl on Monday for violating team rules — and center Antoine Caldwell. Plus, the Tide had experienced tight ends and no other established receiving threats, and quarterback John Parker Wilson had thrown for a lot of yards but was also prone to mistakes at times.

McElwain figured his job was to make use of those strengths and tailback Glen Coffee. The result was an offense that churned out 196 rushing yards a game, second-best in the SEC, had an efficient play-action passing game and produced a solid 31 points a game.

“We’re built for old-school football,” he said. “Part of Alabama, part of the tradition, part of what we are, is being somebody that when you get done playing us, you know that you’ve played somebody physical.”

Utah counters with an undersized defense that has ranks 12th nationally in points allowed and 14 against the run, holding four opponents below 60 yards on the ground.

Coach Kyle Whittingham isn’t expecting much mystery or subterfuge from ‘Bama’s offense.

“Without a doubt, Alabama has the best offensive line we’ve seen all season,” Whittingham said. “Alabama plays smashmouth football. They are going to try to run the ball right down your throat. They don’t care if you know it, they are just going to continue to do it — it’s their M.O. Alabama’s offensive line is really what makes their offense go.”

McElwain said toughness and fitting the offense to the personnel were among the things that he emphasized during his first meeting with the players. Wilson’s passing numbers have declined as a result. Coffee, who was largely unheralded entering the season, reaped the benefits with 1,347 yards, 10 touchdowns and All-SEC honors.

“I think we tried to play to our strength this year,” McElwain said. “I just killed JP’s numbers. I talk to him all the time, that I’m the worst thing that ever happened to the guy, you know?”

McElwain was even asked if this was the most boring offense he had ever coached.

“You know what, it was actually exciting as hell because of the wins,” McElwain said. “There were times where I’ve been involved in those 500-, 600-yard offenses deals and you go home and the only person talking to you is your dog — because you lost the game.”