09 September 2008
We Tide fans are a little too fresh off last year's ULM game, not to mention the last two Mississippi St. games, not to be aware that a W is a W is a W. Still, some Ws are sweeter than others, and at least in comparison to the one the Tide racked up last week against Clemson, this one went down a bit sour.
Who was this Tulane team that racked up 18 first downs on us and held our passing attack to a measly 45 total yards? Was this really a 4-8 Conference USA team?
Yes, Tulane was not very good last year. But bear in mind that this is Coach Bob Toledo's second year at the program and it is a rule of thumb that any coach worth his salt will do much better the second year, all things being equal. And with 17 starters and an impressive total of 35 players who have at least one start under their belt returning, things at Tulane this year are much better than equal.
Also bear in mind that not every team plays at the same level every week. I will state with no doubt in my mind that Tulane played better Saturday than Clemson played last week, but that doesn't necessarily mean that Tulane is better than Clemson. They probably aren't.
Yes, Alabama is also one of those teams that doesn't play at the same level every week, and it's fairly clear that Saturday's Tide performance didn't match last week's performance. But whatever Bama did Saturday was done against a solid opponent. Tulane put up a strong opposition, and all it took to see that was to open your eyes and look.
From The Couch, of course, is not all about how the other team did, but the other team's performance is always an important context for Bama's. This week, in particular, it seems a lot of folks are evaluating Bama's performance in the "crappy-opponent" context. That's just wrong.
Something else we learned this week? Although it's not really news, we saw a good example of how little time it takes for a team to go from "remarkably healthy" to "injury-battered." Without Andre Smith, Marlon Davis, or Javier Arenas, it's a wonder we racked up any points at all after the first quarter.
We usually don't get into coaching too much here On The Couch, because we prefer to use our eyes from the couch to see things, and then talk about things we actually saw, which tend to be things that happened in the game. But the fact that Bama averaged over 6 yards a pop in the ground game and a yoogly 1.6 yards per passing attempt (when sacks are calculated in) just forces us to speculate about why on God's green earth we threw more than we ran.
Here's my guess: we're going to need a two-dimensional offense when the heat of the SEC action starts up, so there's not much point in getting accustomed to the one-dimensional style beforehand. Since our special teams gave us 13 early points and we pretty much trusted our D to hang onto that lead, we could afford to try, try again - and again - to establish a passing game.
And it did get better in the second half. Which leads us to . . .
OK, I've lightened up a little bit on Ol' Three-Names since Saturday night, but I still have to ask: 1.6 yards per attempt? 1.6? Against Tulane?
People that is just awful. Awful, with a capital ful. And please, spare me the "his job is not to lose the game" bit. There are plenty of guys who can hand the ball off without dropping it, but a championship team needs a QB who can get things done. Nothing less is acceptable.
I must point out that I was not among the crowd hailing Wilson as the Greatest Quarterback EVAR last week, starting my discussion of his play by pointing out that he had only averaged 6.0 per attempt against Clemson despite having all night long to pass most of the time. Nevertheless, I find myself forced to back off a bit on the positive statement I DID make last week, i.e., that Wilson is good enough as a QB so long as he keeps his head nailed on straight.
Because really, his head didn't look all that crooked Saturday night. He didn't fold after that disastrous second quarter, but came out and had a better second half. And there was very little of the old throwing it away when not under pressure bit, or really any reason to ever feel as if he had struck his tents for the march home.
But how can a guy who started for three years at a football factory high school and now is in his third full year as an SEC starter have no pocket presence at all? Tulane QB Scott Moore, in his first college start, had no trouble at all with the concept of taking a step right, a step left, or a step forward or back to find a better place in the pocket to stand, look downfield, and throw.
Wilson, on the other hand, drops back to one spot and stands there until he is either sacked or decides to scramble. And if he scrambles he NEVER runs to an open spot, stops, and looks around for an open man.
This is particularly infuriating because Wilson has a nice knack for scrambling into an open space - he just never takes advantage of it. I don't recall him ever looking back at the area he had scrambled away from in his whole career. That's too bad, because a back or tight end who had been blocking often drifts out into the flat when the QB scrambles away, and it's not at all unusual for that guy to be wide open when he does so. He might as well just not bother, though, because Wilson won't see him.
Also, last week I stated that inaccurate downfield passing is not a regular feature of Wilson's game. I may have to eat those words soon, because he hasn't thrown a downfield pass on the money this season.
There is an "on the other hand," though. Wilson regrouped from the disastrous second quarter and did lead a successful TD drive at the end of the third. And he still hasn't turned it over yet, which is certainly not an item to be ignored.
Overall, though, John Parker clearly did not get the job done Saturday night, and while it sure didn't help that the offensive line was pretty porous for much of the game, you need your quarterback to find a way to make plays.
I have much less to say about the running backs, who had a second straight very strong, and very unspectacular game. Coffee and Ingram combined for a very serviceable 20 carries for 126 yards and a TD. Coffee did cough one up, but that was a hat-on-ball situation. Balls squirt free from the strongest grip when that happens.
I'm still saying Ingram is the best we've got.
Upchurch was solid when he was in. Grant looked pretty sharp on his one visible play, a 9-yard pass reception. Word on Grant is shin splints, but it may just be that he has drifted down the depth chart.
Not the presence in the receiving game they were last week, but still their two catches were both for first downs. McCall continues to be an excellent blocker in space.
Two games in, and the wide receiver corps that was the focus of so much pre-season excitement has only 12 catches for 96 yards, a paltry 8.0 yards per catch. Last year, only one starting wideout in the league had such a low yards per catch - Mike McCoy.
Part of it is because we've thrown a lot of quick hitters and none of our outside guys has turned one of those into a big gainer yet. But it's hard for a wide receiver corps to rack up many yards when the QB's downfield throws are consistently off-mark. Wilson overthrew Mike McCoy who was open for a TD and badly missed Julio Jones high and outside downfield when Jones had all kinds of room to catch anything near the middle of the field.
For the record, while chances have been meager, Marquis Maze and Julio Jones have both looked pretty good. In particular, Maze has shown some very nice hands, although there were times Saturday night when it looked as if he should be carrying a compass to help him remember the direction of the opponent's goal-line.
Run-blocking was effective enough throughout. Pass-blocking ran the gamut, from good in the first quarter to abysmal in the second quarter to kind of adequate in the second half.
Notably, the line did not appear to miss its best player badly early on. The running game wasn't getting quite the space it got against Clemson, but it was getting space, and Wilson was given abundant time whenever he dropped back.
All that changed when Marlon Davis went out. Second-quarter pass protection was pretty much non-existent, and it wasn't a good quarter for the running game, either. Guys either ran by new entry Brian Motley or blitzers ran untouched around the end with no blocker to pick them up and no reaction to the blitz by the QB other than to just stand there and take the sack.
Apparently Joe Pendry, Jim McElwain, or somebody
got the guys' attention during half-time. Second-half pass protection wasn't quite as pristine as it was in the first quarter, but there were no more guys coming untouched up the middle, either. Overall, a bad night for the offensive line, and a hint given that we can only stand one OL injury at a time.
The D was much more sternly tested Saturday than they were a week ago. Tulane came out with a solid plan to attack the corners and take advantage of our beef/speed ratio, and then executed that plan well. By the time our guys had got done defending 81 plays on a muggy Tuscaloosa evening, they knew they had been in a fight.
Tulane's plan made for a lot of first downs, but Bama sucked it up and made enough stops to hold the Green Wave to just six on the scoreboard. We made things a lot tougher for 'em inside the thirty than elsewhere, and furthermore we kept on doing that right on through the fourth quarter, even with little help from the offense in keeping Tulane off the field.
As a starting point, we got a good lesson here in offensive-line veterancy. Clemson is undoubtedly a much stronger program than Tulane with better recruiting, better facilities, and (probably) better coaching. But our defensive line put basically the same push on Tulane's veteran offensive line as they put on Clemson's green offensive line - and got nowhere near the same penetration.
Nevertheless, we saw a lot of good things from the DL. Terrence Cody was not the dominant presence he was against Clemson, but he sucked up a double-team on virtually every play and still got in on five tackles, which is a lot for a defensive lineman. Even better, he was still going strong in the fourth quarter of a game that was very hot and, for the D, very long.
Brandon Deaderick remained active and gummed up several plays, even if he didn't register on the stats board. Lorenzo Washington is stepping up to claim a starter's job at the other end. Greenwood looked ineffective in the first half, then found a gear to put strong pressure on the Tulane QB several times in the second half. Josh Chapman spelled Cody effectively.
We might've been a bit quick on the trigger last week in celebrating this line as a dominant force. It may just be that Clemson has a bad OL, or at least that they played very poorly against us. But the unit certainly does not appear to be a weakness.
From less than 10 tackles last week from our linebacker corps, this week the starting backers alone turned in 40 stops. That's partially, of course, a function of the fact that the other team ran 81 plays against us this week and only 49 last week - but it's good to see most of the stops being made by linebackers, instead of by defensive backs.
Rolando McClain played at the All-American level I predicted for him in the pre-season. Not only did he make 15 tackles, but many of those tackles were difference-makers, one-on-one stops of running backs or wideouts who had plenty of running room otherwise. Furthermore, most of the tackles were made at or near the line of scrimmage, and McClain did not give up much after contact, often fighting hard to stop a guy and shove him back.
Also give him credit for some pass defense, including imitating a 255-pound cornerback with a sweet deflection on a well-executed downfield out pattern.
Next on my list is Brandon Fanney, who showed us something of what the jack is supposed to be. I don't think Saunders was ever as effective last year as Fanney was Saturday night, playing the run from sideline to sideline, getting as good a pass rush push as anybody other than Chavis Williams - who is our best pass rusher, by the way - and even showing some decent pass D a couple of times.
You can't ignore Hightower's ten tackles, but the kid is still a work in progress. The progress was definitely there, but still too many of his tackles were well downfield, or after the first down was made. Still, he is very active and often near the ball, and a little sharpness to get him to the ball a tad sooner can see him blossom into a solid backer, and soon. Hightower also flashed some decent coverage skills for a big guy.
Cory Reamer gets mentioned last here, for some reason, but he makes plays and he makes hits. If he's the weak link, it's not very weak. In fact, there may not be a weak link, as Eryk Anders continues to show a nose for the ball and a shoulder for hits while providing solid depth. Once Prince Hall works his way back into the rotation, we may just have a pretty solid group.
Tulane's game plan kept most of the game in front of the DBs, but this is starting to look like a cohesive group that doesn't give up big plays.
The only exception to that, so far, has been Rashad Johnson, who gave up a big play with a missed tackle against Clemson and got beat deep by Tulane. Johnson also missed another easy chance at a pick. Rashad is frankly off to a disappointing start this year compared to his play last year - but not that disappointing. Along with his mistakes were several aggressive run D plays to help him pile up nine tackles.
Justin Woodall is still tuning up, but he was noticeably more involved this week than last. Too frequently he was still a hair away from finishing plays he was involved in, but he made a couple of nice stops as well and looked relatively solid on coverage. And I'm almost ready to stop dogging Marquis Johnson, who had a nifty break-up and was solid in coverage all night.
The injury to Arenas gave Mark Barron more playing time than he had seen previously. Barron has shown his hitting and tackling bona fides on special teams, but his coverage was a little loose Saturday the two times he showed up on my TV screen.
Obviously, we won this game with our first-quarter special teams play.
What can you say about Javier Arenas? Bama has been playing football 116 years, yet he broke the single-game punt return record in one half, and looked as if he were just getting warmed up.
He's got it all, from flat-out speed to moves to very significant power, but my favorite thing about him is how heady he is. There is usually a crease out there if the returner can just find it, but there are so many people moving so fast, that it is all just a blur for most returners.
Not Javy. His head is always up, always swiveling, always looking for that little crack to dart through, and when he can't find it he'll break a tackle, bob around a little, and see if he can't track it down somewhere else. He is one of the best returners I have ever seen, and it is only injury that could possibly prevent him from running back kicks in the League.
Otherwise, not too much to get excited about with the kicking game. We almost gave up another kickoff return TD - looks like I was wrong last week when I said that Spiller's was just a fluky return by a great return man - and looked vulnerable to the KO return all night long. Punt coverage was better, though, with a slightly improved game from P.J. Fitzgerald (although he did save his strongest boots for touchback punts with relatively low net yards).
Corey Smith burned his redshirt. Que sera sera, as Doris Day would put it. Maybe he'll get it back next year, when Tiffin will be a senior.
The best news is that the bells apparently no longer toll for Arenas and Tiffin, at least not inside their heads.