28 October 2008
One of my few regular tasks here at Bamasportsreport.com - left to me no doubt because I watch Bama's games from the luxurious comfort of The Couch while my fellow ink-stained wretches of the editorial staff are engaged with all the tricky business involved in actually attending the games, not to mention getting piss-soaked drunk afterward - is to write the weekly game stories that we publish just after each game.
Of all the Tide games this year, this one was the most difficult game story subject and took me the longest to write. It was difficult because there was, well, nothing really all that extraordinary about this game. Alabama did not play its best football of the season, nor yet its worst. No individual player racked up big numbers, nor did either team. There was no stretch of game-time that was particularly chock-full of action, and no neat divisions between portions of the game dominated by Alabama or portions of the game dominated by Tennessee. It was just a single relatively unspectacular 60-minute stretch of football in which the better team regularly got the better of things.
Being as regular and as unspectacular and unexceptional as it was, this game was probably as good an indicator of where Bama's football program really stands right now as any game we have played this year. If so, the Tide stands pretty well.
Florida beat Tennessee by more points, but only by virture of three Vol turnovers that turned a game where Tennessee actually outgained Florida into a seeming romp. Georgia ran up more of a yardage differential against the orange than did Bama, but only led by six points at the beginning of the fourth quarter of a home game. Here it was Alabama that had the game's lone turnover and also had a punt blocked, yet blew the Vols out of their own stadium anyway in a game that was totally lacking in suspense.
And I would be very surprised to learn that the Volunteers medical staff got the kind of post-game workout after either of those games that they got after this one. This is not a game where the Vols woke up Sunday morning wishing they could play Alabama again. (That's not my line about this game, by the way, but I can't for the life of me remember where I read it, so it will have to go unaccredited. Whoever wrote it first hammered the nail.)
23 first downs, 388 yards, and 29 points: those are decent numbers. Until you take into account that they came against the nation's #2-ranked defense. Then they're more than decent, especially when you throw in the fact that they were accompanied by zero turnovers (our lone turnover was on special teams).
It was methodical, it was seamless, it worked whenever it needed to work, and it produced plenty of points for an easy win.
Last week I was calling out for some kind of risk-taking from the coaches to get Bama off its second-half downer run, and I was cussing at the screen when we lined up for a 30-yard field goal on 4th and 1 early in the 3rd quarter. Well, I'd still like to see a bit more coaching aggression in latter stanzas, but as it turns out we played a pretty dominant second half against Tennessee even without the gimmicks.
Before starting in with the hosannas, I'll point out that John Parker Wilson gift-wrapped a pick six for Eric Berry on Alabama's first possession of the game, throwing a blooper five yards behind Earl Alexander on a Berry-covered out pattern. He was lucky as hades that Berry was distracted by trying to catch up to the open Alexander and wound up spotting the ball half a second too late to convert. Wilson also evoked the Ghosts of 2007 on a third-down play in the third quarter, where the threw the ball away when he was not about to be sacked, never seeing a wide-open Julio Jones 15 yards in front of him because he never really looked.
Other than that? Hosanna, hosanna in the highest! J.P. was on target, on time, the chief source of our pre-fourth quarter offense, and the main reason we held the ball long enough in the first three quarters to wear them out and cram it down their throat in the fourth. Wilson hit 17-24 for 188 yards and did not throw an interception.
He is to be particularly commended for avoiding a stiff pass rush without being sacked a single time. One completion of four yards to Nick Walker on Bama's first drive is particularly noteworthy, as it appeared Wilson had already been sacked before shoving the ball in Walker's direction.
Coffee and Upchurch both looked good, combining for 164 yards against a rushing defense that hadn't given up more than 133 yards to any other team's running backs.
For the first time this year, Upchurch really looked like our best option, with 86 yards at a 6.1 per carry clip. Roy has been our best receiving back all year, with his 101 receiving yards on the season easily eclipsing the 80 yards that Bama's several other backs have combined for.
I don't know if it was because he was distracted by an increased concentration on holding onto the ball, but for some reason Coffee didn't seem to hit the holes quite as hard or as quickly as he has done previously. 79 yards at a 4.1 per carry clip is decent, but not the kind of numbers Glenn has been racking up most of the year. Zero fumbles is a good number, though.
My best guess on Ingram, who carried four times for only one yard, is that he still hasn't recovered from the knee sprain incurred against Georgia. In the last four games, against UGA, Kentucky, Ole Miss, and Tennessee, Ingram has carried 39 times for 157 yards, an average of 4.0 yards per carry. In Bama's first four games, Mark toted the rock 43 times for 263 yards, which averages out to 6.1 yards per carry. It's a long way from 4.0 to 6.1.
Finally, either I drew an overly rosy impression the first few games or else Bama's backs as a group have gone seriously downhill on pass-blocking. Way too many blitzers are being barely slowed if at all by an attempted block. Kudos to Roy Upchurch, though, for a nice lead block on Coffee's first-half TD run. And by the way, Bama ran a bit of two-back early on with Upchurch at fullback. An interesting wrinkle, and successful to boot.
When Julio Jones drops a pass, or plays a game without breaking tackles and stiff-arming for at least 15-20 yards after the catch, I'll let you know. On that basis, I've got nothing to let you know about here. In fact, Julio topped 100 yards for the first time in his collegiate career. My money says it will happen at least twice more this season.
At least unless Wilson finds another wide receiver to go to. Five wideouts caught passes Saturday night: Julio with six catches for 103 yards, and four other guys with four catches for 36 yards. Not exactly the definition of balance, but so long as teams keep throwing their defenses at our running game it will be difficult to double-cover the big guy from Foley.
We'll probably complete more balls to our wideouts next year, because after McCall and Walker graduate we will most likely be playing a whole lot less with two tight ends in the game. As it is, Walker gives us Wilson's second-favorite receiver, and McCall gives us a sixth offensive lineman who is also eligible to catch passes.
As for this game, Walker hauled in three balls for 23 yards. He is on pace for 35 receptions this year, which I am willing to go out on a limb and say will be the most by a Bama tight end since Lamonde Russell caught more than that from Gary Hollingsworth circa 1988 or so. I do wish, though, that he would cut back a bit on the ineffective juking and just haul his 260 pounds north and south after catching a ball.
Brad Smelley now has two catches on the season for two first downs - one of each in each of the last two games. How many will he have to catch before Chris Smelley becomes Brad Smelley's brother?
A good game for the group overall. Even if Ingram really was injured and Coffee really was distracted, as I speculate above, Bama's rushing attack was the most successful against Tennessee all year, and most of the Vols' pass rush success came from blitzers.
Mike Johnson looked great pulling to make a key block on Glen Coffee's early three-yard TD run, but he looked awful cut-blocking the ground in what was supposed to have been a pass block a bit later.
The play when Ingram fumbled just after taking a seat, only to see Eric Berry snatch it up and run for an apparent touchdown with no whistle blowing, was an interesting one to watch the Tide's line on. But not in a good way.
First, both Antoine Caldwell and Marlon Davis completely whiffed on their blocking assignments. Second, after Ingram somehow escaped both Vols linemen deep in the backfield and appeared to be on his way to a nice gain, Caldwell rammed him and knocked him down in a misguided effort to run his blocking target down from behind. I don't think any UT player was involved in that "tackle" at all.
Holding a team with UT's talent and a veteran offensive line to 173 yards and 10 first downs is a pretty good brag point, especially since four of the first downs and about 40 of the yards came in a garbage-time fourth-quarter drive when Bama already led 29-3.
The defense is to be especially commended for its first-half performance in a pair of pressure situations. First, Tennessee started on the Bama five-yard-line after Javier Arenas' first-quarter punt-return fumble and wound up kicking a field goal from a line of scrimmage at the 14. Later, the Vols started on the Bama 32 after a partially-blocked P.J. Fitzgerald punt, and wound up missing a field goal short from a line of scrimmage at the 34. That's lights-out D when it counted for the scoreboard.
Terrence who? TERRENCE WHO?
The fact is that our defensive line will be significantly stronger when Terrence Cody lumbers back onto the field of play, hopefully in Baton Rouge on November 8, but the other fact is that we're plenty good without him. As we have noted all year, Josh Chapman doesn't get the accolades but he does get a lot of playing time and our rushing defense is essentially the same with or without him. Chapman got in on four tackles Saturday night, and they were all at or around the line of scrimmage.
The main change Saturday night was that it was Lorenzo Washington spelling Chapman instead of Chapman spelling Cody. And Washington turned in the same kind of solid performance in the middle of the field that he turned in as the starter during 2007. As a result, Bama missed Cody very little, which has to be a big part of the reason that Tennessee rushed for 36 yards, well below its 125 yards per game average.
Marcel Dareus saw his first significant activity since early in the season. It may have only been because of Cody's injury that he re-entered the rotation, but he looked strong and fast, like a guy who will be a key to our line in future seasons and may yet work into a bigger role in the remainder of this one.
As a jack linebacker, Brandon Fanney is a really good defensive end, maybe the best we have. Probably in a year or two we will see Upshaw, Michael Williams, or maybe Craig Sanders showing us the jack position as Saban intended it, but in the meanwhile having a good defensive end play the position is a lot better than what we had last year.
Dont'a Hightower has clearly improved as the season went along, and had his best game of the season Saturday night, maybe even good enough to get me to stop asking where the heck Prince Hall is. Hightower had seven stops, including his first official tackle for a loss of the season, occurring when Hightower not only penetrated to nab a Vol running back four yards deep but gave the second effort necessary to grab the guy's ankles and wrap him back up after he squirmed away from the initial hit.
Rolando McClain gave another typical semi-dominant performance without edging over into full dominance as he does occasionally. But I'd like to see the next 260-pound linebacker who can pass cover a slot receiver or dog a running back swinging out of the backfield for a pass the way Rolando can. And all the while laying out the kind of run-stopping hits you expect from guys of his size.
The NFL scouts have to be drooling.
No interceptions this week, but once again our defensive backs held the opposing QB to under five yards per attempt. Once again the group provided solid run support, and once again the opponent just couldn't get a guy open downfield.
Defensive backs also accounted for both of the Tide's sacks, and they were both things of beauty. On a third down blitz up the middle from the Bama seven-yard-line on UT's first scoring opportunity, Rashad Johnson knifed through untouched and dove straight at Nick Stephens' ankles precisely as soon as they came within range. As a result, Stephens had no chance to unload and took the sack.
Later, Javier Arenas set the tone for the second half when he blitzed around end on the very first play after intermission. Stephens looked up and saw him seemingly in time to unload, but Javy, who had been coming in at a controlled pace, saw Stephens looking up and suddenly turned on the same burst that he uses when he sees a crease in punt return coverage. Before you knew it, the UT QB was laid out for a nine-yard loss that would lead to a three-and-out.
Javier did interfere after getting beat on deep out that led to Tennessee's late touchdown - Rashad Johnson also had interference called on him in that drive, but that call was questionable or worse - but otherwise there was little to complain about from the defensive backs' performance. Kareem Jackson and Justin Woodall were the guys who didn't get thrown at much, and both guys took the opportunity to provide valuable run support.
An interesting note: Ali Sharrief has 2.5 tackles for loss and three pass breakups on the season, and I'm convinced that the bulk of those have come on screen passes. Sharrief has busted up so many screens in so little playing time that I'm half-convinced that he is a designated screen-buster and Saban inserts him when he thinks a screen is likely.
Here, it was Sharrief who busted a Tennessee tailback for a three-yard loss on the 3rd and 9 in the first half that came just after Fitzgerald's punt was blocked. Ali gets at least partial credit for UT's failure to score on that possession.
Punt return coverage was strong. I'm a little worried by what looked like gaps up the middle in kickoff coverage that were reminiscent of our early-season worries, but in each case the middle gap was closed before the returner got there.
Obviously, though, we had a couple of breakdowns on special teams. Javy Arenas has been ridiculously bold on passing up fair catches since the day he stepped on campus, but it really needs to stop. It cost us in this game, and it could have cost us worse, and it is bound to happen again if he doesn't change.
On the blocked punt, Fitzgerald bobbled the snap slightly. It was only a slight bobble, and it only took a fraction of a second, but he didn't begin to step and kick until he had the ball under control, and then he took his regular two-steps, drop and kick routine. Again, it was only a fraction of a second, but on a ball that was barely blocked it was clearly enough time to cause the block.
The punter needs to take bobbles into account and rush his punt if necessary. A rushed punt is not the best, but it beats the hell out of a blocked punt. We were fortunate to get a great bounce and roll out of this one.
Leigh Tiffin looked really good on field goal kicking. Not only was he three for three, but all three were right down the middle and longer than they needed to be.