17 November 2009
Tennessee From The Couch started out with the phrase "It wasn't that bad." And this week I'm here to tell you it wasn't that good.
Maybe the lesson you should draw from this is that I'm a contrary cuss, and if you did, you might not be very wrong. But maybe a better lesson is that you shouldn't really draw too many conclusions from the week-to-week ups and downs of a football season. That one might not be very wrong, either.
Why did I think it wasn't that good? I'll tell ya.
Basically, this game was a handful of plays away from being a nail-biter against a team that is firmly esconsced among the SEC's bottom three. Take away Bama's 3 big touchdown plays, pretend that Chad Bumphis didn't step on the sideline during his kickoff return and/or that Robbie Barron didn't make a fabulous TD-saving tackle on Leon Berry's near-TD return, allow Tyson Lee to make the accurate passes when he had his guys open for possibly six, and what have you got?
An alternate reality, that's what you've got. In this reality, things happened the way they did, and if they hadn't happened that way, then Bama might've won big some other way. So all I'm really saying when I say it wasn't that good is not that it wasn't good, just that it wasn't that good. In other words, it wasn't that different from the way we played against Tennessee or LSU. Fact is, the Tide has played well in every game this season, even though some fans have wanted to hang themselves after some games and crack the celebration champagne after some others.
OK, I see I've got you confused. I know that because I'm confused myself. So let's stop talking meta-football, let's talk football.
Red Zone Offense
'One way to solve your red-zone woes is to score three TDs from outside the red zone! Our one-TD-in-one-try red zone performance against the Bulldogs raised our red zone TD conversion rate on the season to 41.5% (still very bad), but holding State to zero TDs in three zone appearances lowered our red zone TD conversion defense rate to 36.8% (very good). As long as we're scoring in the zone at a higher rate than we're giving it up, the problem isn't too terrible.
National championships, however, are based on strengths, not on problems that aren't too terrible. One acceptable week in the red zone doesn't convince me this problem is solved.
Kickoff Return Coverage
Speaking of problems that aren't solved, lordy did I show my foolishness last week when I thought, for some unfathomable reason, that a good kickoff return coverage week against LSU meant we were getting over our problem. This even after I had noted in my LSU pre-game piece that LSU's kickoff return team was the worst in the conference.
If you watched the Mississippi State game, you may have noticed that the problem has not been solved.
I'm no expert in return coverage, but I did notice that on both the big returns our safeties (or whatever you call ‘em) came forward far enough to allow themselves to get engaged by State's blockers. There was nothing tricky about either return, just a guy running straight forward through a crease and finding that there was nobody in front of him - or nobody except for Leigh Tiffin, which in this case was the same thing. (Last year, Tiffin saved at least three touchdowns by either making the stop or at least making the guy slow up enough that he could be caught. This year I don't believe he has made a single play.)
By the way, in case anybody is wondering whether the refs got it right or not on the very close call that Bumphis was out of bounds, what I can tell you for sure is that they missed a clip on Chris Rogers at the Bama 5. Sure he was trailing the play and wouldn't have made the tackle anyway, but the clip was extremely blatant and should've been called. So even if Bumphis wasn't out of bounds, and the refs had gotten everything right, it's no TD, just 1st and 10 on the Bama 20, which was not a situation MSU handled very well during other parts of the game.
Slow Defensive Start
Bama has had a few games this season where the D was a bit slow getting untracked coming out for the second half. That has generally not been the case at the beginning of games, but it was Saturday night. MSU got 76 yards of offense plus a 15-yard pass interference penalty its first two possessions - then only 137 more yards for the rest of the game, including a 26-yard run by State's Robert Mitchell in garbage time just before Marquis Johnson's interception.
We all know Marquis settled down after the big opening PI call, as I'll discuss below. Another DB who got a bad start was Justin Woodall. On State's second possession, Lee hit Bumphis in the flat for what should've been a four-yard gainer, but in trying too hard to make it into a two-yard gainer, Woodall set too aggressive an angle and allowed Bumphis to escape and turn 4 into 24.
Later, Woodall was in position to fill a hole on up-the-middle run from Anthony Dixon. Instead, he tried an arm tackle from the side. Dixon didn't even slow down and rumbled for good yardage. Justin played his normal steady game thereafter.
Although the Tide remains second in the nation in run D, recent games have seen opposition rush totals slowly climbing. Bama gave up 47.3 yards per game over the first four games, 89.5 yards per game over the last six, including 95 to LSU and 114 to State. The Tigers and Bulldogs had notably better success between the tackles than most of the opponents in the previous 22 games.
Part of this is attributable, of course, to the fact that those last six games have all been against SEC opponents. But Dont'a Hightower's absence has to be a factor, as Cory Reamer is simply a less physical inside presence. Josh Chapman's nagging abdominal strain has figured in as well, as he has been unable to provide the quality backup that kept Terrence Cody fresh last year. Dareus doesn't clog the line the way Chapman can.
Bama's run D remains solid, but it has been better than solid over most of the last two seasons and I'm not sure it still is. Here's hoping Chapman will be 100% on December 5 because Florida just loves to run up the middle.
Rolo's play is also part of the explanation for why the Tide's D appeared to strengthen as the game went along. McClain is rarely effectively blocked, and this game was no different, but #25 filled the wrong gap several times early on.
McClain appears to have more latitude to free-lance than Nick Saban gives most of his defenders, who must execute their assignments if they are to remain on the field. Coach allows the big guy to go with the flow and make plays.
Later, McClain seemed to get a feel for the State attack, and dominated much of the second half. McClain made the tackle on all three of the plays State ran at the Bama 5-yard-line - at the line, at the line, and a yard behind the line, respectively - and sacked Chris Relf to effectively end the Bulldogs' last scoring chance.
OK, I think the "we're gonna pick on Marquis Johnson" thing is officially over. Keep your eyes open, Javy and Kareem.
If there has been a better DB play all year than the one Marquis made on his second touchdown-saving breakup, it must've been the one made later by Mark Barron. And speaking of . . .
I'm not quite ready to jump on the "Mark Barron is a great safety" bandwagon yet, because he isn't taking the deep throw away like Rashad Johnson did last year.
But bear in mind that Barron is only a sophomore and Rashad was a fifth-year senior. If Barron makes half the improvement Johnson made in going from a walk-on running back to a second-round draft pick, he will be an elite safety, and he's got the coaching to help him get there.
One thing he has for sure is madd ball skillz - which is something that you tend to find among the very greatest defensive backs, from Night Train Lane to Herb Adderly to Lem Barney to Deion Sanders to (the first) Rod Woodson. Barring injury, Barron's TD return against South Carolina will not be the last of his career.
He is also a fine run-stopper and a knock-knock-knocker. He might be the best safety the Tide has ever had by the time he leaves - but it says here that he ain't there yet. As for now, he's just real good.
Every week takes us one week farther away from the South Carolina game, where visions of John Parker Wilson against Mississippi St. in 2007 were dancing through Bama fans' heads. To their eternal credit, Nick Saban and Jim McElwain did not turtle up and give up on the passing game, and it looks like their persistence has paid off. Saturday night's tilt was the third straight game in which McElroy looked sharper than in the previous game. All told, he looked pretty sharp Saturday night.
The only real scares were a couple of missed hookups to Marquis Maze on quick stand-up slants. Both passes missed entirely and went sailing toward the sideline at about head level. Repeat that too many times and you will be giving up a pick six.
Overall, by my extremely unofficial count, Bama went to screens or quick-hitters five times: those two misses to Maze, the screen to Julio that was batted down, a screen to Upchurch for 3, and another screen to Maze for a two-yard loss. Overall on quick passes: 1-5 for 1 yard, including two scary misses. The rest of the passing game was 11-13 for 191 and two TDs.
OK, it has taken me a while to really make a determination on this, but now I'm ready to say that Joe Pendry is a heckuva OL coach. To lose three three- or four-year starters, one a high first-rounder, and still put together an OL that is playing at basically the same level is an outstanding achievement.
Everybody knows that Bama has one of the most reliable running games in college football. But the Tide has only given up 0.9 sacks per game this year. That's tied for 8th in the nation and most of the teams that are ranked higher don't pass much.
Although Darius Hanks is having a solid season, Maze appears to have solidified his spot as the Tide's #2 receiver with another productive outing. Maze doesn't have the greatest hands in college football, but he is one of the SEC's finest shake-and-bakers.
And yes, I said #2. Julio Jones has had some struggles this year, but he's healthy now and I have no doubt at all that he remains Alabama's primary receiving target.
Ingram's Long Run
Any Holt High grads out there? Remember Freddy Adams? If you do, you're dating yourselves, and I'm dating myself even more by saying that Freddy was in my graduating class.
Anyway, we had a game our senior season, Brookwood I think, when Adams had a 96-yard TD run. He was not the most fleet of foot, and managed the feat by making a really nifty cut just before a defender ran him down around mid-field. I always wondered how Freddy knew that guy was there, but I never asked him because we weren't the best of friends to put it lightly.
Later, when I was an econ tutor at Bryant Hall, I did manage to ask Bobby Humphrey the same question after Bobby had done something similar in the previous game (I don't recall against whom). My theory was that Humphrey had seen the guy's shadow from the stadium lights, but he said no, he had heard him breathing.
In case any of you were thinking about getting down on Mark Ingram for styling the last 10 yards of his long TD run because he couldn't have known whether or not a State defender was right behind him to go for a strip? Well, don't. Ingram told ESPN hottie Erin Andrews after the game that he checked the MSU jumbotron for pursuit while he was running free. Take that, Freddy Adams.
Dre showed his special athleticism a couple of times Saturday night, most notably on a fabulous play to haul down a Jeremy Fitzgerald punt and drop it in play deep in State territory. But he was out of position on the Berry kickoff return.
Watching guys like Kirkpatrick and Woodson show off on special teams solidifies what the Saban savants have said all along: you have to know the Saban scheme to get playing time in his defensive backfield. Period. These guys have a year to figure it out; look for ‘em both to do plenty of showing off on D in '10.
That all-time NCAA punt-returning record is starting to look iffy.
After Bama's first four games this season, Javy had already racked up 285 yards in punt returns on the season and only needed 218 more to break Wes Welk's all-time NCAA career punt return yardage record. Since then, Arenas has added only 46 yards in the last six games, and is still 172 short.
Bowl games count toward such records now, so Javy still has four games to get the yards. It remains possible, but it has gone from seeming extremely likely to a long shot.
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