Trent Richardson during the San Jose State game / CW | Drew Hoover

When news came out August 31 that reigning Heisman winner Mark Ingram had surgery on his left knee, it seemed as if every Crimson Tide fan held their breath. The 48-3 victory over San Jose State last week allowed them to finally exhale, as Alabama rushed for a total of 257 yards without Ingram.

“Eddie [Lacy], Demetrius Goode, and obviously Trent [Richardson], did a good job,” sophomore offensive lineman Barrett Jones said. “Honestly, you couldn’t really tell that much of a drop off, and that’s the way we really want it here. When one guy goes down, we can plug another guy in and have success.”

People who follow the Tide aren’t ignorant to the talent that backup running back Richardson holds. They may be less aware of his ability to replace Ingram’s leadership on the field as well.

“Trent has always been one of the guys on the leadership council around here,” head coach Nick Saban said. “It doesn’t have anything to do with being a starter; he is just that kind of person. He has a lot of competitive character, he makes a lot of good choices and decisions about what he does. He sets a lot of good examples for other people.”

Though it is typically home to one of the most highly-touted running back tandems in the country, the Alabama offense is not at all one dimensional. As quarterback Greg McElroy showed in last week’s game, going 13-for-15 with 218 yards, the Tide can be a force through the air as well, and McElroy has been a big part in the success of the passing game.

“I think he’s been different all through camp,” Saban said. “He’s more confident. I think his arm has gotten a little bit stronger and he is confident in making throws that I don’t think he was confident in making a year ago. That is all going to benefit us in being able to utilize the skill players that we have.”

With Ingram gone, Alabama was not afraid to open up its offense more in the passing game. The Tide succeeded in airing the ball out in week one, and McElroy said that it is something the team is not worried about doing if need be.

“I think we have confidence if we do need to open it up,” McElroy said. “We did a good job starting off pretty strong in the passing game.”

However, McElroy still feels that despite Alabama’s big day in the passing game last week, the Tide can continue to get better.

“It is something we can build on,” McElroy said. “We missed a play or two. It is something that we need to learn from and move forward from, and I think it is something we can work the kinks out of sort of easily. It is the first game of the year, and you have to improve each and every week. It’s a good starting point and definitely something we can build on.”

Building is exactly what the Tide will have to do in order to continue to be successful without Ingram. There most assuredly will be times when young players will have to step in and might slip up. Redshirt freshman Lacy was a part of an early miscue when he fumbled the ball at the goal line in the first quarter against San Jose State, costing the Tide a chance to score. However, McElroy said that over the course of a season, plays like those can test a player’s character and make him stronger.

“I think that fumble by Eddie was a great thing for the long term,” McElroy said. “Obviously you never want to fumble, you never want to give up possession, especially in the end zone, but the way he was able to bounce back and the way it wasn’t able to affect him…it is really encouraging to see a young player like that not get down in the dumps.”

Lacy ended the game as the Tide’s leading rusher with 111 yards and two touchdowns.

Last week’s game gave many of the inexperienced players an opportunity to see game action in a low-pressure situation. This growing experience might serve the team well heading into a highly publicized encounter with Penn State this weekend.

“I think that anytime guys who haven’t played get the time to play, there is obviously things that are going to help them grow and mature, and that experience is going to be beneficial,” Saban said.
Though a team never wants to see any of its players hurt, much less a Heisman winner, the time without Ingram could make the Tide stronger in the future.

“Obviously we would love to have Mark,” McElroy said. “In a perfect world we would love to have him back with this offense and contribute in the best way he knows how. I think we have confidence in Trent, Eddie and Goode to be able to go out there and be productive. I think those guys will do good for us and continue to improve as the season goes along.”

Despite the depth on offense, the Tide still longs for the return of its star running back. Due to the nature of the injury, Alabama must wait and see how long it takes until Ingram can return to the field. Saban said he isn’t sure when Ingram will return, but he will not bring him back until he is ready.

“It’s going to be a day-to-day basis on whether he can take the next step,” Saban said. “We need too see him be able to be himself, be 100 percent and be able to practice enough to be confident. I have to see Mark Ingram be Mark Ingram.”

Until then, the Tide will look to lean on the other pieces in its offense and bridge the gap until Ingram returns.