Alabama coach Nick Saban believes his latest talented and tenacious team took a step toward creating its own identity.
Though it felt a lot like the 2011 Crimson Tide never left on Saturday night at Cowboys Stadium.
Dee Milliner and Alabama defense pushed around Michigan and showed they can still dominate, manhandling the eighth-ranked Wolverines and pounding Denard Robinson in a season-opening 41-14 victory Saturday night.
Alabama had to replace most of its starters, including three first-round draft picks, from a defense that led the nation in just about everything last year and helped the Tide win its second national title in three seasons.
”I think we came out in the first game and established the kind of identity we’re going to have on this team,” Milliner said. ”On defense, we were aggressive. On offense, we came out and attacked.”
C.J. Mosley returned an interception 16 yards for a touchdown for the second-ranked Tide. AJ McCarron, no longer with third overall draft pick Trent Richardson to hand the ball off to, threw two touchdowns as Alabama won its 11th consecutive season opener.
”I personally don’t think we were trying to send any type of message,” McCarron said. ”We’re just trying to do what coach (Saban) preaches. And that’s to go out and play our game. Do what we’re supposed to do.”
Milliner, the primary nickelback last season now in a starting role, deflected four passes in the first half, and had an interception after shoving intended receiver Roy Roundtree to the ground and into the Alabama sideline. That set up a touchdown for the Crimson Tide, which shot out to a 31-0 lead.
While Michigan still can recover to contend for a Big Ten title and possible Rose Bowl bid, this could be a confidence-shaking performance. The most lopsided season-opening loss certainly wasn’t what Michigan expected coming off an 11-win season under first-year coach Brady Hoke that ended with the Wolverines’ first BCS victory since the 1999 season.
”Obviously, we didn’t play Michigan football, and that’s something that bothers our team, bothers the coaches,” Hoke said. ”Win or lose your first game, you learn a lot.”
They were without suspended running back Fitzgerald Toussaint and defensive end Frank Clark, but even with them probably weren’t ready for the toughest of tests.
Unfortunately for Hoke and the Wolverines, this is Alabama – still at its very best.
Even Saban was applauding the performance as the final seconds ticked off the clock.
”This team had a challenge of trying to create an identity for itself,” Saban said. ”That happens over time and happens with consistency in performance. It’s a big win over a very good team.”
McCarron was 11-of-21 passing for 199 yards. Freshman T.J. Yeldon ran for 111 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries, while Eddie Lacy had a 9-yard TD run.
It was a tough night for Robinson, even though he accounted for both Michigan touchdowns. Most of his 200 yards passing (he was 11 of 26) came on two plays – a 71-yard pass right before halftime that came before his 6-yard TD run and his 44-yard scoring pass to Devin Gardner in the third quarter.
”I didn’t make the throws that I should have made today and I feel that I didn’t play as the Michigan quarterback today,” Robinson said. ”I’ve got to step it up and be more accountable.”
Robinson, held to 27 yards rushing on 10 carries, showed his toughness when he didn’t miss a snap immediately after being hurt on a fourth-down run in the third quarter.
The Heisman hopeful got hurt when he stretched and landed awkwardly trying to lunge for a first down on fourth-and-3. He appeared to reach for his lower back while on the ground, where he remained for several minutes before being helped up and then walking gingerly off the field.
Officials first marked Robinson’s run as first down. But while Robinson was being tended to, the play was reviewed and it was determined that his elbow came down short of the first down. But he was back in the Michigan huddle after Cade Foster kicked a 51-yard field goal.
After Alabama went three-and-out on the opening drive of the game, and its defense quickly set the tone with Milliner knocking down two passes on Michigan’s first possession, the Crimson Tide got rolling.
McCarron faked a handoff to perfection, after Lacy and Yeldon had carried the ball down the field, and tossed a 2-yard TD pass to Michael Williams for a 7-0 lead.
Robinson overthrew two receivers before another Michigan punt, and McCarron hit DeAndrew White in stride streaking down the sideline for a 51-yard score. Cornerback Courtney Avery, in after starter Blake Countless sustained an early knee injury, slipped down on the play.
Then came Milliner’s big shove that he got away with for a big play. With Roundtree on the ground and the ball in the air, Milliner caught the ball near midfield and returned it to the Michigan 17. Robinson helped make a touchdown-saving tackle, and appeared to grab his right shoulder then.
”I got a good jam,” Milliner explained. ”When I looked up, the ball was coming and I made a play on it.”
Lacy, limited coming off an ankle sprain, broke two tackles on a hard-charging score that made it 21-0, still in the first quarter.
When Jeremy Shelley’s 22-yard field goal made it 24-0 with 10 minutes left in the first half, the Crimson Tide had 233 total yards – 199 more than Michigan. It was 31-0 after Robinson inexplicably threw a pass right into Mosley’s chest.
Alabama finished with 431 total yards, and Michigan had 269.
The crowd of 90,413 was the largest ever to see a college game at Cowboys Stadium, where the crowd was distinctly split by fans in crimson and those in maize.
At the end, the Alabama fans were chanting ”S-E-C!, S-E-C!” and ”Roll Tide!”
”It’s a deflating loss, it should sting,” Michigan safety Jordan Kovacs said. ”But at the end of the day, you can’t let Alabama beat you twice.”