Decade of Dominance: An oral history of Nick Saban’s most shocking home loss at Alabama

Take a quick glance at the stats, and it looks to have been a typically dominant outing for Alabama under coach Nick Saban.

The Crimson Tide outgained Louisiana-Monroe 409 to 282 in total yardage. They rushed and threw for more yards than the Warhawks. Yards per carry and yards per pass each slanted in ‘Bama’s favor, too.

The Tide also recorded more first downs and were whistled for fewer penalties in front of 92,138 at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

However, Saban and Co. committed four turnovers (two fumbles, two interceptions) while ULM took perfect care of the pigskin from start to finish. Alabama inexplicably lost to a lowly Sun Belt cupcake, 21-14.

That was Nov. 17, 2007, Saban’s initial year in Tuscaloosa. At seven points, it ties for the most lopsided home loss during his decade of dominance. It remains his most puzzling.

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Think about that: In nine-plus seasons, the Crimson Tide have never been beaten at home by double digits. Saturday against Kent State will be the 65th time Saban comes out of that locker room, yet not once has retreated following a defeat by multiple scores.

Auburn, their chief rival in the West, lost to division foe Texas A&M in front of the “War Eagle!” types by 13 just last week.

Florida, reigning champs of the East, was blown out at The Swamp last year by hated Florida State 27-2. The season before, the Gators suffered a nasty defeat in Gainesville to conference neophyte Missouri 42-13.

Ole Miss was last upended at home by 10 or more points in 2013. Tennessee? 2014. Every other team in the SEC? Last season.

Now with four national championships to his credit at ‘Bama and perhaps on his way to a fifth, Saban’s infamous seven-point defeat to Louisiana-Monroe is all the more unexplainable. We can certainly try, though.

* * *

Tuscaloosa News sports editor Tommy Deas: “Of course, no one really saw it coming. But it was more unthinkable at the time than it is in retrospect.”

ULM coach Charlie Weatherbie (2003-09): “Really, I didn’t think about a coaching matchup. I just thought about our ULM team going into Tuscaloosa and playing well. We knew that we would have to play real well and not turn the ball over and give up any big plays to be in the game. We were blessed to play very well that day and come out with a victory.”

Deas: “Alabama had announced the suspension of five players — a couple of starting offensive linemen, running back Glen Coffee and two reserve defensive backs — before the Tennessee game a few weeks earlier. But then they beat a ranked Vols team, 41-17, so maybe that wasn’t going to be too big of a deal. Or so we thought.”

Weatherbie: “We knew that Alabama had a great bunch of athletes. We had played them two years before in 2005 and played well for one half, but we got blown away in the second half.”

Deas: “Alabama was a team in free-fall, but we didn’t know at the time just how far the fall would be. The figuring was that a game against a team like ULM was just what Alabama needed. So much for that.”

first quarter

After Alabama won the toss and elected to receive, ULM boomed the ball into the end zone for a touchback.

Starting from their own 20-yard line, the Crimson Tide called two running plays that gained 10 yards and a fresh set of downs. John Parker Wilson then hit on his first throw, a screen to Keith Brown for 35 yards.

Already well into Warhawks territory, an offside penalty moved the ball to the 30. Jonathan Lowe over left end for 8 yards — first down ‘Bama. Lowe once again, this time over right guard for 4 yards. Lowe’s third consecutive carry only went for 1 yard, so Wilson faced 3rd-and-5 from Louisiana-Monroe’s 17-yard line.

Wilson found Brown again for the final 17 yards and a TD. It took just 3:44 to grab the initial lead, 7-0.

Frank Goodin gave his offense terrific field position with a 36-yard kickoff return to start the Warhawks’ first possession at their own 40. But Kinsmon Lancaster was eventually sacked on 3rd-and-10. ULM punted.

Credit: ULM Athletics

Credit: ULM Athletics

The Tide picked right up where they left off the previous possession. Wilson connected with Nikita Stover for 5 yards. Lowe rushed off left tackle for 7 and a first down. A draw to Jimmy Johns caught the Warhawks off guard and went for 22, although an illegal block downfield cost Alabama some of the real estate gained.

Suddenly, Wilson went cold. Following two straight misses, Quintez Secka picked him off at the ULM 28.

A 19-yard pass from Lancaster to Zeek Zacharie on 3rd-and-9 took the Warhawks near midfield — one play later, a facemask penalty got the Warhawks into enemy territory. But the drive fizzled and ended in a punt.

Beginning at his own 15-yard line, Wilson wrapped three straight short completions around a 2-yard rush by Lowe to move the ball to the Crimson Tide 26. However, his next attempt downfield proved to be quite disastrous. A sideline pass was intercepted again by Secka, who returned it all the way to the ‘Bama 1.

The first quarter ended with the Tide leading, 7-0. Nevertheless, ULM’s sideline was alive.

“Turnovers can make a big difference in determining the outcome of a game. We always said stats really don’t matter and that the score determines the outcome of a game.”

— ULM coach Charlie Weatherbie (2003-09)

second quarter

Calvin Dawson took the handoff and bowled over left tackle for that 1 precious yard. It was tied, 7-7.

A drive doesn’t get much more efficient in the game of football: 1 play, 1 yard, 4 seconds, touchdown. Wilson’s first INT perhaps robbed his team of points. His second gift-wrapped a score for Louisiana-Monroe.

Wilson’s confidence was unshaken, though. Alabama began its next drive with two runs by Terry Grant, the first going for 5 yards and the second gaining 15. Wilson then hooked up with Preston Dial for another 22. Two more carries by Grant gained 9 yards. On 3rd-and-1, Wilson moved the sticks with a quarterback keeper.

On the very next play, Grant scored on a 12-yard run. After the Leigh Tiffin extra point, it was 14-7 Crimson Tide.

Lancaster began the next drive for the Warhawks with a miss, but he started to feel it shortly thereafter. While a second-down completion to Dawson produced no gain, he hit Marty Humphrey deep for 40 yards on 3rd-and-10.

Credit: ULM Athletics

Credit: ULM Athletics

ULM went to the ground game with Dawson on three of the next four plays, as he totaled 11 yards to move the ball to the ‘Bama 23. Facing another third down, Lancaster targeted Darrell McNeal on a crossing pattern for 6 yards to move the chains again. Two plays later, Goodin barreled across the goal line on a 13-yard run.

Capping a 10-play, 80-yard drive that took 5:05, the point after tied the score once again for ULM. It was now 14-all.

The Tide crossed midfield on their next possession, but they weren’t able to answer the previous score. A third-down screen pass from Wilson to Lowe was sniffed out for a 7-yard loss. Punting time for P.J. Fitzgerald.

Lancaster and Co. subsequently went three-and-out. However, Scott Love’s 37-yard punt was fumbled by Alabama’s Simeon Castille. Louisiana-Monroe recovered at the Crimson Tide 40-yard line with 3:12 left on the clock before halftime. Fortunately for ‘Bama, the Warhawks were unable to turn the takeaway into points.

Despite getting the ball back at the 1:54 mark, after three turnovers, Saban had seen enough. He went back to the locker room looking for answers.

“I think with ULM or any underdog, the longer you let them hang in the game, the more confidence they get. If you score 21 in the the first quarter, teams usually go away. Look at Jacksonville State-Auburn last year.”

— Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson (2005-08)

third quarter

Receiving the second-half kickoff, Goodin returned the ball 17 yards to the Louisiana-Monroe 23-yard line.

Lancaster completed his first throw after intermission, finding Zacharie for 17 yards on 2nd-and-10. A few plays later, he put another pass in Zacharie’s bread basket for 10 more yards and a fresh set of downs.

A yard beyond midfield, Dawson totaled 20 yards on back-to-back carries to move the rock all the way to the 29-yard line. The Crimson Tide were clearly frustrated, drawing a sideline warning from the officials. But a second-down sack of Lancaster by Castille and Prince Hall killed the drive and led to a punt.

However, the ‘Bama offense didn’t muster much of a response. Three Grant runs only produced 8 yards. Time to punt again.

Refusing to go three-and-out himself, Lancaster converted a 3rd-and-6 with an 11-yard completion to McNeal on a slant. Two plays later, he got the ball into the hands of Humphrey over the middle for 19 more.

Credit: ULM Athletics

Credit: ULM Athletics

A first-down run over left tackle from Dawson went for 11 yards. The Warhawks tried the left side again with Goodin, who got 10 himself. ULM had first down at the Tide’s 11-yard line. Two more runs produced no gain, but Lancaster was unfazed on third down. He delivered a strike to Humphrey for 11 yards and a touchdown.

The point-after try was true. Louisiana-Monroe had taken its first lead, 21-14, with six minutes left in the third quarter.

Taking over at his own 25, Wilson came out firing with a sideline pass to D.J. Hall for 18 yards. On the next play, Brown caught a Wilson throw in the right flat and rumbled 25 yards to the Warhawks’ 32.

A few plays later, on 3rd-and-8, Wilson found Hall again for 10 yards to keep the drive alive. However, Alabama wouldn’t penetrate any further than the ULM 19. Tiffin eventually lined up for what should have been a routine 36-yard field goal. He’s remains the program’s all-time leading scorer, by the way.

Tiffin’s attempt was blocked on the last snap of the third frame. The deficit remained seven points with 15 minutes to play.

“ULM took advantage of the opportunities in that game, and Alabama gave the Warhawks plenty of them.”

— Tuscaloosa News sports editor Tommy Deas

fourth quarter

Bolstered by four consecutive completions by Wilson for 4, 25, 18 and 9 yards, the Crimson Tide had the ball at the Louisiana-Monroe 19. But on 2nd-and-1, Johns lost a fumble at the 13-yard line to end the threat. Turnover No. 4.

The Warhawks lost 12 yards on three plays thanks to two negative runs from Dawson and a delay-of-game penalty, which forced them to punt from their own 2. Lowe fielded said punt on the plus side of midfield and returned it all the way to the ULM 26. However, the ensuing ‘Bama drive lasted 8 yards.

On 3rd-and-2 and then again on 4th-and-2, Lowe was stuffed for no gain at the 18. The Tide turned it over on downs.

Replay confirmed the call on the field. Louisiana-Monroe regained possession with 2:01 remaining. The Tide still had two timeouts left, so the Warhawks needed to get a first down in order to run out the clock.

Predictably, Dawson got the call on the ground to the left. Wallace Gilberry made one of his 27 tackles for loss that season to order up 2nd-and-12. Timeout. Dawson took the handoff again to the left for 4 yards. Timeout. On 3rd-and-8, Dawson tested the left side a third time. Gilberry assisted on another TFL.

Credit: ULM Athletics

Credit: ULM Athletics

Alabama watched helplessly. ULM let the clock tick all the way down to 1:05 before calling time. Out came the punting unit.

Louisiana-Monroe wasn’t going to let this game slip away on special teams, electing to punt the ball directly out of bounds at the Crimson Tide 37.

Wilson needed to go 63 yards in 56 seconds with no TOs.

He fired toward the sideline incomplete to Brown. With nobody open downfield, Wilson scrambled for 4 yards and got to the sideline to stop the clock. Under pressure, he missed Matt Caddell in the right flat. On a do-or-die fourth down, Wilson was again errant. He was looking for Mike McCoy along the sideline.

Victory formation. Kinsmon took a knee. The Warhawks — 4-6 record, previous losers to Texas State, 25-point underdogs — had stunned the college football world.

* * *

Wilson: “Stats are great, but losing turnovers 4-0 usually means a loss. Doesn’t matter who you are playing. The turnover stat is the biggest one, no doubt.”

Weatherbie: “I do remember running the ball very well in the last few possessions of the game, picking up some crucial first downs and running the clock down quite a bit. We had a huge punt out of our own end zone, and one of our punts was around 70 yards, which does an amazing job of changing the field position.”

Wilson: “Walking around campus is never fun after a loss. Didn’t matter if it was Saban or (Mike) Shula. Definitely not fun after losing to ULM. But losing reveals a lot of character, good or bad.”

Weatherbie: “That was great for our players, coaches, fans, alumni and entire ULM athletic program.”

Deas: “Funny thing I do remember was that on the way to the Independence Bowl at the end of that season, Alabama fans had to ride through Monroe, and there was a big billboard on the highway to greet them. It said ‘Tide Rolled,’ along with the score. Some ULM boosters apparently came up with the idea and passed the hat to do it. Nice touch.”

Wilson: “I think the teams that we have today were born in those earlier teams. It would have been very easy just to give up on that season. We ended up winning a bowl game and carried that momentum into 2008, when we started with a win over Clemson. The rest is history.”

* all quotes obtained first hand

John Crist is the senior writer for Saturday Down South, a member of the FWAA and a voter for the Heisman Trophy. Send him an e-mail, like him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.

Source: Saturday Down South

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