30 September 2008
With the exception of John Parker Wilson - who got loud, got proud, and got down with his bad self Saturday night - Alabama didn't do anything against Georgia it hadn't done most other games it played. It's just that people noticed this time.
We noticed From The Couch, too. It's just that we had already noticed what Bama was doing every time out this year - and yes, that includes the Tulane game, which may have been the Tide's worst performance of the year, but really wasn't all that bad, as we told you at the time.
Yes, we had already noticed before this past weekend that Bama was one of the nation's best college football teams, and yes we had said so. And yes, we are cocky here On The Couch and don't need to be told by others that we are right in order to believe that it is so.
Still, affirmation is nice. And affirmation has been pasted all over the sports pages these last couple of days. They have been sweet days.
But we don't usually talk affirmation From The Couch. We talk football. So let's talk some.
It all started with the offensive game plan, which was not too hot, and not too cold, but just right. Alabama's staff recognized that Georgia would not be a fifth straight team to have the running game jammed down their throat whether they liked it or not. Instead, Georgia would have to be distracted with a passing game - and then, distracted, have the running game jammed down their throat.
It was almost as if all these games of struggle with the downfield passing game were just play-acting to fool our toughest opponents into thinking we were one-dimensional offensively so that, in the pinch of time, we could unveil a nearly flawless passing attack to win the big ones with.
We didn't pass much, but we passed at the right times. Mostly we passed on first and second downs, and frequently off play action, buying time for Wilson and solo coverage for our wideouts, and avoiding pin-yer-ears-back blitzes from Rennie Curran and his ilk.
The running game was short on 88-yard touchdown rambles, but punched out enough consistent three- to six-yard gains to rack up a lot of first downs. Throw in a couple of timely late-game screens, and you have a recipe for success.
John Parker Wilson has had good games before, such as going 32-46 for 363 yards, three TDs and one pick against Tennessee last year, or hitting 16-20 for 243 yards, three TDs and no picks against Arkansas in 2006. But I think there are few who will argue with me when I say that Saturday night's performance against Georgia was the finest of his Alabama career.
This was against Georgia, top-ranked in pre-season polls, playing in their own house, and yet the much-reviled (by me, at least) Wilson picked the Bulldogs apart with precision downfield passing. Wilson hit 13-16 for 205 yards and a touchdown and was not picked off. Further, the passing game accounted for at least 45 yards more when you add in two late hits on Wilson and a pass interference penalty, which interference penalty prevented a probable long touchdown pass which would've padded the senior play-caller's stats even more.
Wilson's downfield passing was consistently right on the money, amazingly so when you consider how inaccurate his downfield throws have been for most of the season. But even more indicative of how amazingly "on" Wilson was last Saturday night was his three screen passes.
Screen passes were a bugaboo for Wilson when he first took the Tide helm. Overthrows, sometimes pickable ones, deflections, bloopers setting up running backs to take a walloping, uncatchable rifle shots, he made all the mistakes.
Saturday night, he was textbook on three screens, all resulting in good gainers and first downs. On Bama's first drive, he looked off the left-side screen beautifully, then turned quickly and threw an immediate dart to Glenn Coffee though a narrow hole in the Georgia defense, leading to a fifteen-yard gain (and a fumble, which was nullified by a late hit on Wilson, but that's kind of beside the point). In the fourth quarter, he found a passing lane for another dart to Roy Upchurch only by leaning to the side to create the lane. On Bama's next possession, with Georgia defenders bearing down on him and another Dawg between him and Upchurch, he casually lofted it over the houndpack, leading Upchurch nicely to the outside. All three were imminently catchable, all three set up the ensuing run for yardage perfectly, and none of the three was an easy pass to make.
Now, the official story is that I am never wrong about anything, so if you don't remember that after reading the following, we may have to send Tom Cruise and the rest of The Couch's world-renowned team of covert assassins around to your house. But, strictly on the downlow and confidential and QT and a need-to-know basis, I may have been all wrong in my pre-season assessment of Mr. Wilson.
To boil it down, pre-season I said that if Wilson could avoid certain very specific historical tendencies - which mostly consisted of raising the white flag too early during certain plays, or games - then we would be happy enough to take what he can give physically. As it turns out, we saw scarcely a hint of premature chips-cashing from the senior quarterback during the first four games, while the physical performance was no better than borderline.
Well, here in game five, there were a couple of third-quarter plays where Wilson turned a passing play into a running play altogether too soon. That was about as close as we have come all year to a repeat of last year's bailing-out tendency.
So you see where I'm coming from. The only game that Wilson came anywhere close to doing the things that were my big pre-season fear is also the game where Wilson played, overall, quite magnificently. Leaving my pre-season theory looking none too healthy at the moment.
Never fret. Our world-class team of Theorists here at The Couch isn't about to stop Theorizing. You can set your clock to it.
Glen Coffee didn't have the running room he had seen in all four earlier games, and as a consequence turned in a somewhat less fancy stat line. But there are games where 23 carries for 86 yards and 2 TDs is the mark of a top running back, and this was one of those games.
Coffee absorbed a lot of shots, but he just kept bringing it, and hard. His two short touchdown runs were both things of beauty.
Mark Ingram looked just as good as he has looked all year in his first two or three carries. Unfortunately, he carried two or three more times after he got hurt, ran tentatively, and his stats reflect it.
Roy Upchurch only rushed for 18 yards on six carries, but the two afore-mentioned screen pass receptions amounted to 51 huge fourth-quarter yards. The second screen is worth particular mention.
It was on 3rd and about 3 or 4. As described above, Wilson avoided the rush with a lob pass to Upchurch, who caught it heading outside with Georgia's second-leading tackler, Akeem Dent, in hot pursuit, and Georgia's leading tackler, Rennie Curran, trailing by a couple of steps. From The Couch it looked as if Upchurch could keep trucking outside and he would have a good chance to turn upfield, dive to the sticks, and make the first.
Instead, Upchurch stopped and threw a move on Dent. Our highly-paid team of crack analysts On The Couch groaned, thinking that, whatever happened with Dent, Curran was sure to catch up and make the play. But the best analytical staff in all of football couch-writing was wrong. Upchurch's move made Dent fall down
, and when he fell, he fell right in Curran's path. Curran was forced to dive over Dent, and could only get an arm on Upchurch, who shrugged it off and turned the play upfield for a big gain that led to Bama's final touchdown.
Fun. And funny.
They fooled me into deciding to allot a whole category to tight ends when they threw those six tight end completions in the first half against Clemson. Well, here we are nine halves later and our tight ends have caught another 10 passes.
One of them was to Nick Walker for 11 yards Saturday night. It was the second straight week in which Walker had made a single catch to extend his streak of having caught a pass in every game.
Walker also dropped an onside kick right in his arms. I must add, though, that the kick was spinning furiously end over end, which meant he had to cradle it as opposed to catching it with his fingers as receivers are normally taught to do, he had to leap way up to get it, and he got slammed by two Dawgs before he had a chance to wrap up. He still
shoulda caught it, but the extenuating factors were real.
It pretty much goes without saying, though, that both our senior tight ends can block, especially McCall. One second-quarter block in particular, where McCall came around in motion and just crushed a Georgia linebacker who was otherwise in position to make a play, stands out.
Several wideouts made good plays. Nikita Stover got in a couple of big blocks to go with a 14-yard reception. Mike McCoy made a couple of nice downfield catch-and-runs. Marquis Maze would almost certainly have hauled in a long Wilson toss for a touchdown on Bama's first possession had he not been blatantly interfered with. And B.J. Scott was a hair away from giving Bama fans the first chance to watch him shake and bake in the open field on a seven-yard reception on Bama's first play from scrimmage.
But it was a coming-out party for Julio Jones, who undoubtedly got the better of the publicized head-to-head battle with fellow phenom A.J. Green. Not that Green didn't look pretty sensational himself, but Jones showcased power, speed, and reliably soft hands en route to 5 receptions for 94 yards and a TD.
We hope you were watching closely in the first quarter, when both Andre Smith and Mike Johnson totally fanned on their run-blocking assignments on the same play, allowing two Dawgs to penetrate and thump Glenn Coffee in the backfield. You haven't had the opportunity to see something like that this year, and may not again, at least not before mid-November.
Georgia's fine defensive tackle Geno Atkins slipped by Johnson a couple more times before the night was over, but on the other hand Johnson showed excellent mobility and agility - along with strength - as a pulling guard. There has been some thought of putting him at left tackle next year, but at least so long as we can find a true left tackle somewhere, I think Johnson is already playing the position he will play on Sundays.
Georgia is the first team that has not been dominated by our offensive line, at least insofar as the running game goes. Our backs had to fight for their 129 yards. On the other hand, Georgia's lasting concentration on stopping Bama's ground game probably hurt their pass rush, which was ineffective most of the night.
Of particular note was the pass-blocking of Drew Davis. He's still probably the team's weakest pass-blocking link, but he handled Georgia's speed-rushing ends pretty well Saturday night, only getting blown by once on a play that did not lead to a sack or a hurry.
As has been true for every other team we have played, running up the middle wasn't even on Georgia's menu. On the time or two they tried, they failed.
It would be difficult to overestimate the contribution Terrance Cody has made to our rush defense. Maybe it was the fact that it was a night game, maybe a little cooler - I wasn't there, of course, it was plenty cool On The Couch - but for whatever reason, we saw more Cody and less Chapman Saturday night than had been the case in the first four games. He held up to the increased playing time just fine, which is not necessarily a good sign in terms of getting the big guy to forego his place in the draft next spring.
I don't have much criticism for the line. Fanney - whom I'm calling a lineman right now, although I may lump him in with the linebackers next week - and Deaderick continued to do a good job of pinching off the run on that side of the field.
But the entire line was most impressive, perhaps Deaderick the most so, at getting a consistent decent four-man push on Stafford even while staying in pass-rush lanes. Getting a good four-man rush was key, because for one thing blitzing is difficult against Georgia, which tends to keep seven or even more back to pass-block, and for another we wanted to keep our backers back to disrupt Georgia's effective screens.
Stafford's lone pick came when he was under pressure from Deaderick on a standard four-man rush play.
We did disrupt those screens, by the way. Brandon Fanney sniffed out Georgia's first screen, but Moreno simply out-ran him and turned it into a decent gain. The second screen was nearly intercepted by Rolando McClain, who instead turned the play into a short loss, and their third - and last - screen also lost yardage. That, along with Georgia's increasingly desparate play-calling, allowed us to start blitzing more in the final quarter.
Speaking of that blitzing, we told you last week that Eryk Anders is a fine blitzer, and he really showed it Saturday night. He comes energetically, disentangles himself from blockers energetically, and really throws himself at a quarterback when he gets one in his sights.
Other than a fairly standard evening for Rolando McClain - i.e., real good, with five tackles and some nifty pass defense - we didn't see too much else from Bama's backers. Partially that was because the score dictated that Georgia increasingly strike toward the areas guarded by our defensive backs, but we didn't see a lot from Don'ta Hightower beyond a serendipitous fumble recovery.
The Couch's world-renowned team of Monday morning quarterbacks wonders why we didn't see more of Prince Hall. However, the schizophrenic Couch also understands that, despite the brilliance of it's crack Second-Guessing Department, the coach usually knows best, and this goes double or so for a coach doing as good a job as Nick Saban seems to be doing right now. Charitably, The Couch will allow that Saban might have a plan that The Couch doesn't know about and let it go at that. The Couch's decision to exercise the virtue of Charity is buttressed by the fact that Bama whupped Georgia's patooty even without the Couch's permission to play Hightower more than Hall.
I have to admit to being less than intimately familiar with the play of every safety in the SEC, but I will tell you that both of Bama's safeties are playing at what normally passes for an all-SEC level.
Rashad Johnson was obviously never even phased by having made a couple of early-season mistakes. It comes with the territory. He is as solid a tackler as you will see from a speedy pass-covering type, and is just a splendid addition both to Bama's run D and to its pass D.
But it's Justin Woodall that is really drawing attention. Woodall already has three picks and two forced fumbles, and seems to be getting a little bit more comfortable back there every game. And the more comfortable he is, the less comfortable opposing receivers running crossing patterns will be. Woodall regularly manages to lay some serious wood on some poor receiver or running back at least twice a game. I think it was more than twice Saturday night.
Surprisingly, the defensive back who had an unusually visible game, and not in such a good way, was Kareem Jackson. Twice Kareem was the closest man, but not quite close enough, when A.J. Green hauled in relatively deep downfield strikes, and he also dropped an easy interception in the fourth quarter.
Jackson's pass defense was just fine otherwise, though - and asking a guy to shut down Green is a tall order. In fact, a tall, speedy, acrobatic order with great hands.
Overall, our defensive backfield was ab fab. Six deflections is a lot, and most of those deflections would've been completions. In fact, holding Matthew Stafford and Georgia's fine receiving staff to just 256 net yards, factoring in sacks, on 44 attempts, is really something special, especially when you consider that 77 of those yards came in garbage time after Bama went up 41-17 with 4:13 left.
That's only 5.8 yards per pass play, and only 5.0 yards per pre-garbage time pass play. 5.0 is very bad. In Georgia's previous four games, Stafford averaged 8.7 yards per pass play - and yes, I'm factoring in sacks here as well. 8.7 is very good.
Boil it down, and our defensive backs changed Stafford's output from very good to very bad. They get a gold star for that.
Well, there had to be a fly in the ointment.
You gotta like Leigh Tiffin, with his 11 points on perfect kicking and his gritty self-sacrificial kickoff coverage. Tiffin was in on two more kick coverage plays Saturday night, which of course is two too many.
I hear they are working on tackling with Tiffin this week. I hope they're working on survival, as well.
I also hear they're going to try Prince Hall on kickoff coverage. That's not a bad idea, and in fact it might not be a bad idea to try another starter or two. What's happening currently just don't cut it.
For the second time this year, Terry Grant made a possible touchdown-saving tackle on kickoff coverage. Both times, it was a nice form tackle.
Punting was, of course, a complete disaster. Everybody except the graduates of the Refereeing School For the Blind knows that there were at least a couple of illegal blocks on Georgia's 92-yard TD punt return, but still, there was a lane there and you can't fully excuse the coverage team on what happened. And that was only a few minutes after allowing a punt block.
Not only that, but Javy Arenas never broke a big one of his own.
But by the way, John Parker Wilson, Julio Jones, Justin Woodall, Terrance Cody. A smidgeon of BCS championship game, anyone? And I say that because I'm not about
to end my discussion of this fantastic game on such a downer note as the special teams discussion. I'm happy, and I'm gonna end happy.