07 October 2008
After a string of games that made The Couch a happy happy place, well, not so much this time.
Alabama still looked very strong, nearly as strong as they looked against Georgia. They just looked haphazard. Disorganized. Poorly coached. Which is odd, unexpected, and not at all the way they had looked in the first five games.
To be fair, it was a W, and a W against what is probably a pretty decent team. Ws are good. Eight more and we can call it quits for 2008 and have happy memories about the whole business.
You know, there are really a lot of good things to say about the offense on Saturday. 388 yards against one of the nation's top defenses ain't half bad, and 282 yards on the ground against that same defense is downright bragworthy.
But then there are the turnovers. The penalties. The missed field goals, the missed opportunities. The pass-blocking breakdowns. The offense made nearly as many big mistakes as it had made in the first five games combined. Not so bragworthy, especially when you consider that very low mistake numbers (i.e., penalties and turnovers) were a terrific bragging point for our O before Saturday.
Was it all just lack of focus after the big win? Maybe, but it's worrisome. And now we'll have to worry for two weeks before we see whether this is going to carry over. Call me a worry-wart, but we were in pretty good shape after the UT game last year, and look where we finished up.
It was almost as if the Georgia game never happened, and Alabama was back to where it was against Tulane, Western Kentucky, and Arkansas: trying to work out the kinks in its downfield passing game so as to have it ready to trot out against the big opponents.
Wilson's mistakes are easy to list: a pick; a couple more pickable balls; consistently locking onto a single receiver (usually Julio Jones); failure to avoid sacks; ineffective scrambling, and most of all the fact that he simply didn't make much happen through most of the game, despite the fact that a strong running game set the passing game up to succeed.
Still, Wilson threw more accurately downfield than was generally the case in the first few games. But for the zebras, his stats would have been decent, and a couple more of his passes were on the money but defended by Kentucky.
If a regular reader of From The Couch exists in this world, then that person knows I have been struggling to reconcile my sense that Mark Ingram is a better runner than Coffee with the stats Coffee has been putting up. I think I've got that worked out.
Yes, Ingram has a skosh more power and that high-speed cut he made en route to his 36-yard run was simply something that Coffee cannot reproduce. And I think, although I'm not sure, that he has half a step of speed on #38 - although it can't be denied that a succession of SEC defensive backs have failed to find a way to catch Coffee from behind in recent games.
But Coffee has one thing going for him that more than makes up for Ingram's series of small advantages: he can flat-out find that hole. Moves and power and speed may be the most spectacular of running-back skills, but hole-finding is the most important. Vince Lombardi always preached to his running backs to "run to daylight," and Lombardi had a clue.
But at the very time I find myself coming around to acknowledging that Coffee is a better runner than Ingram, my doubts as to which back should get the bulk of the work increase. That, of course, is because Coffee put the ball on the turf three times Saturday. Coffee has now fumbled no less than five times
this year, and although for various reasons only three of them are official, they were all real fumbles.
Five times in six games is way too many; almost enough to erase all of Coffee's splendid work, such as the 218-yard performance he put in Saturday that was the most yards gained in a game by a Bama back since 1996. But not quite enough; I'm still giving Coffee the benefit of the doubt, partly because at least a couple of his fumbles were of the type that are hard to avoid.
One of his fumbles Saturday can scarcely be called his fault at all. I'm talking about the damaging one, the one that Kentucky recovered inside their own 10. Not only did the Kentucky player directly strike the ball with his hat, but he was falling uncontrolled as he did so. As the hit momentarily checked his fall, the defender's entire weight and momentum were directed straight through his helmet onto the ball. That ball was almost impossible to not fumble.
On the other hand, there was little excuse for Coffee's next fumble deep in Kentucky territory. And excused or not, five is a big number just half-way through the regular season. This is a legitimate cause for concern.
Here we saw a couple of catches for thirty yards for Nick Walker, including an excellent second-quarter grab where he snatched the ball away from a defensive back who appeared to be in superior position to make the catch. Later, Walker slipped behind the defense on a play-action pass, but Wilson's underthrow meant the play resulted only in a 24-yard gain, not the touchdown it should have been.
One early sweep left by Glen Coffee typified the year Travis McCall is having. McCall made strong contact with a penetrating lineman who had a shot at Coffee behind the line, then bounced off that guy and managed to make contact with and slow down a linebacker who was in position to run Coffee down at or near the line.
Neither guy got closer to Coffee than a couple of steps away, and the play turned into a nice gainer, thanks almost entirely to #83.
Nikita Stover did haul in one grab, on a nice Wilson throw to the sideline, and was praised by Gary Danielson for his downfield blocking. Other than that, it was a Julio Jones show, as it is increasingly getting to be.
Every Bama fan knows that Julio would've had a 125-yard day but for a couple of questionable zebra calls. On the latter call, a third-quarter pass interference penalty that killed a Tide drive - and led to a punt that was followed by Kentucky's first scoring drive of the day - the view From The Couch was good enough to allow our crack team of refereeing critics to conclude with some confidence that the interference was of the imaginary variety.
It's true that Julio put his hands on the DB - but only to ward off the dude, who was trying to reach in. We watched the play in slow motion multiple times, and there was no sign at all that Julio's hands caused any kind of direction change, or slowing down, or in any other way impacted the defensive back at all. The call was garden-variety fiction.
As for the first call, our world-class squad of rulebook lawyers has just pounded the rulebook pretty good without coming up with a reason that a penalty should have been called. If you know better, please let us know. We assume here that Nick Walker was covered up and ineligible to receive, and we saw on the teevee that Walker blocked and did not cross the line of scrimmage before the ball was thrown.
A pretty schizophrenic performance here - 282 yards rushing and several all-day passing attempts on the one hand, but three sacks and four holding penalties on the other hand. Unfortunately, it's hard to concentrate on the hand holding the 282 yards rushing when the other hand has so much ugly stuff in it.
On Bama's very first third-down play, John Parker Wilson was sacked when Andre Smith was just flat beat by Kentucky linebacker Johnny Williams. Don't get us wrong, Williams is a fine player, but he weighs 244 pounds and should not be able to quickly escape when the big guy gets his hands on him, as he did here. For some reason, Smith just didn't get his arms extended - and consequently, didn't get Williams stumbling backward, as happens to most pass-rushers he blocks - before Williams bounced off the block and ran straight to the QB.
Later, Drew Davis and Mike Johnson each tried on the same play to legally cut-block their men at the line of scrimmage on pass protection. Cut blocks at the line are generally not recommended for pass protectors. As it turned out, Davis and Johnson each pretty much whiffed and both their guys ran free. Johnson's guy got the sack.
Some of the holding calls appeared to be of the phantom or borderline variety. Drew Davis, though, had one that was a downright tackle-from-behind-to-avoid-the-sack type.
Despite all that, you still have to be impressed by the 282 yards rushing against a team that came into the game giving up 73.3. Kentucky's early schedule was not exactly jammed full of powerhouse rushing attacks, but their run defense appears to be relatively solid. Bama's running backs certainly ran well, but the big guys were out front grading the road first, and that's what made it happen.
It does not
get old pointing out week after week after week that teams don't even much try to run up the middle against us. Or that, when they do, they get slammed.
We don't know how good Kentucky's offensive line is - not too good, we suspect - but we do know that Alabama got a very strong push with its typical four-man rush in assigned lanes, perhaps the best consistent push since the Clemson game. Bobby Greenwood got the SEC Defensive Player of the Week award with a sack, a hurry, and a deflected pass, but Mike Hartline got to smell the breath of all of our down linemen.
Generally, though, Kentucky did what every opponent has done, i.e., they attacked the corners with speed and quick passes in an effort to just avoid our defensive line. Nobody is going to be able to say they got the better of our defensive line until somebody at least tries a different gameplan on us.
LSU maybe? I'd like to see 'em give it a whirl. I like our chances.
Rolando McClain is starting to get beyond the phase of just making a lot of plays. He's starting to make 'em with flair. Not only did the big guy get in on ten tackles, not only did he score a touchdown
- a gift TD, but who's counting - but he made a grunchola of big hits, including the hit of the day on punt coverage.
Don'ta Hightower laid a pretty good love tap on a pass receiver himself, and generally looked very good in pass coverage. He's still not making many running-play tackles in the vicinity of the line of scrimmage, though, and our unparallelled second-guessing squad continues to wonder where Prince Hall is.
I guess you can cut 'n paste my "Eryk Anders is a good blitzer" comments in on a weekly basis now. The dude looked even better Saturday, and Saban is finding ways to get him involved in the pass rush more frequently. He came from jack, from inside linebacker, and at least once from the strongside DE position against the 'Cats. He appears to be our best pass-rusher.
Still not much chance to watch Corey Reamer play, as for the umpteenth time we ran nickel most of the time. I guess that just happens when nobody can run on you even when you're stuffing the field with DBs.
With the exception of Kareem Jackson, who played a super game even though tested surprisingly often, these guys were good but not quite at the level they were at against Georgia.
Of course, everything was OK until the game's last twenty minutes, but our defensive backs tackled pitifully on the two consecutive third-quarter screen plays that moved Kentucky from their 38 straight into the Bama end zone, and there's just no excuse for letting a wide reciever got way behind the DBs with a ten-point lead and less than a minute left. None.
And Justin Woodall only laid out one serious lumpin'. We're used to seeing at least a couple.
Still, we saw a lot of good stuff. Jackson was superb, including one first-quarter play where he actually stripped a wide receiver TWICE when it looked like the guy was going to make a great play and hold on to the ball after the first strip. Rashad Johnson made another textbook deflection and tackled like the future NFLer he is. Ali Sharrief brings it like a guided missile on screen passes, and shows no sign of giving up his backup role to Mark Barron. Generally, the whole squad - as usual - showed the kind of tackling form that makes it possible for us to run so much nickle and still stuff the run.
Tiffin - not good. Everybody saw that, there's no reason for me to belabor it.
On the other hand, Fitzgerald - good. His work wasn't quite as noticeable as Tiffin's, so in case you missed it I'll lay a number on you - 43.2. It ain't record-book material, but after the punting we've seen in the post-Lane Bearden era, we'll damn sure take it.
Kickoff return coverage - no disasters, which is good, but we're going to wait a couple more games before we start feeling too complacent about this area. Perhaps we need to clone off 10 more Courtney Upshaws, since the young fellow seems to make most of the kickoff return tackles, no matter which part of the field they're made on.
Although I've bragged a couple of times on the surprisingly good - to me, at least - defensive backfield play of Marquis Johnson, he gets a special goat award on special teams for his play Saturday. On Kentucky's first punt, Johnson came free and had the punter dead in his sights, but for some reason turned outside and passed up what looked like a sure block. Later, Johnson fell back to block . . . too far, as he knocked Arenas away from the ball. Justly enough, the ball bounced up and hit Johnson's elbow, which means he is the one who gets credit for having fumbled, not Arenas, resulting in a turnover.
Last week, I didn't want to give the false impression of an outstanding performance by ending up with special-teams miscues. This week, I think I'll stop right here and let the ending impression of this sloppy game speak for itself.