It’s been a pillar of Alabama’s success under Nick Saban. Along with a devastating defense, the Crimson Tide have been defined by a deep, potent running game.
What began with Terry Grant and Glen Coffee has seen the pieces change but the domination stay the same. Out steps Grant and eventual Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram picks up the load; Coffee’s departure gave way to Trent Richardson; and after Ingram, Eddie Lacy has delivered.
These days, the running game is in the hands of Lacy, a junior, and freshman T.J. Yeldon, and it’s business as usual in Tuscaloosa.
“It’s always been our goal to play two guys — not always equally, but fairly equally to where both guys have a better chance to sustain the season at a high level and are productive throughout,” Saban said.
That philosophy has certainly paid off.
Since Saban’s arrival in 2007, the Crimson Tide have had two running backs run for at least 545 yards every season, and had three 1,000-yard rushers in that span. Lacy and Yeldon are upholding that steak, having run for 649 (Yeldon) and 596 (Lacy) yards heading into top-ranked Alabama’s clash with No. 5 LSU on Saturday night in Baton Rouge.
“Eddie has done a good job for us, T.J. has done a really good job for us, and the combination of the two is probably most effective for us,” Saban said.
In all, Alabama is averaging 214.3 yards per game and has piled up 20 TDs, second only to Texas A&M (237.6 yards and 27 scores) in the SEC, and the Tide are the only team in the conference with two runners in the top 10 in yards per game with Yeldon in eighth (81.1) and Lacy 10th (74.5).
The Tide running game does go beyond Lacy and Yeldon, freshman Kenyan Drake has added 206 yards and five TDs on 7.1 yards per carry, and six backs on the roster have at least 85 yards on the season.
But it’s that duo that’s that have provided the foundation, and they’re doing it with two different styles.
Like Grant, Coffee, Ingram and Richardson before him, Lacy is the latest in the line of Alabama’s physical bruisers at 6-foot-1, 220 pounds. While he battled turf toe last year and a sprained ankle this season, Lacy appears to be at full health, running for 470 yards the last five games, including 106 yards against Florida Atlantic and 177 and three TDs vs. Missouri.
While Yeldon is a similar build as Lacy at 6-2, 216 pounds, he brings a dynamic style that has rarely been a part of the run game in the Saban era.
The five-star recruit out of Daphne (Ala.), who originally committed to Auburn but switched sides in the Iron Bowl rivalry in December, ran for 2,196 yards and 32 TDS his senior season. He’s flashed that same explosiveness in his Crimson Tide debut, burning then-No. 8 Michigan for 111 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries, and in four games has averaged at least 8.0 yards per carry.
“They’re not only very strong, very physical runners, but they’re also loose, which I always see is the issue,” said LSU coach Les Miles. “Yeldon seems to have a little more make and miss. Lacy runs hard and both play very sound ball security style of football. I think they’re very talented.”
The talent is undeniable, but Lacy and Yeldon have yet to see a defense with the credentials these Tigers boast.
Alabama has faced just one team that ranked in the top 20 nationally in rushing defense prior to their matchup in then-19th-ranked Missouri and has faced six teams that ranked 40th or lower. LSU, led by its tandem of All-America ends in Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery, is eighth in FBS and second in the conference, yielding 94.8 ypg this season. Over the last 23 games dating back to the 2011 Cotton Bowl, the Tigers have allowed just one back to go over 100 yards, though that unit hasn’t looked nearly as strong of late.
It was Florida’s Mike Gillislee that ended that 21-game streak without a 100-yard runner as he piled up 146 along with two TDs on Oct. 6 and in that win the Gators had 176 total yards on the ground. Texas A&M also found similar success in the Tigers’ final tune-up for the Tide, running for 134 yards.
Alabama would seem well tooled to add to those frustrations. The run-first Tide are holding onto the ball an average of 33 minutes, 16 seconds a game (seventh in the nation), marking the fourth time in five years that number has been above the 32-minute mark.
Controlling the ball again Saturday night in Death Valley, where LSU has won 22 consecutive games, is likely to keep the Crimson Tide on pace to defend its national championship – and it will come courtesy of a dangerous backfield tandem.