13 October 2009
It was a great Saturday to park On The Couch for some – well, scratch that, make it a whole bunch - of college football. The Alabama Crimson Tide turned in what was possibly the most impressive performance yet in an impressive season, with a dominant road win over a ranked SEC foe. And there was more good football later at night (at least here in California) to make the savoring of this fun, fun game even a bit more pleasant.
What was so impressive about it? Let’s talk about that.
I’ve been starting all my columns with Greg McElroy on a don’t-fix-what-ain’t-broke basis, and it still ain’t broke – but Alabama’s defense rose up on Saturday to demand premier attention.
Ole Miss was supposed to be a pretty good team with a pretty good quarterback and a grab bag of offensive weapons. (In fact I still think they actually do have a pretty good quarterback despite the chorus of condemnation that is descending on Jevan Snead’s head in the media these days.)
Here’s what Ole Miss did in their first-half possessions:
3 plays, 0 yards, turnover
3 plays, 0 yards, punt
3 plays, 5 yards, punt
4 plays, 6 yards, 1 first down, punt
1 play, turnover
3 plays, 2 yards, blocked punt
2 plays, 6 yards, end of half
No one guy gets the credit. Big plays came from Corey Reamer, Justin Woodall, Javier Arenas, Rolondo McClain, Robbie Green, and more. Mainly, though, every guy did his part and the D performed as a unit. An awesome unit.
The only downside of the day’s festivities was Greg McElroy’s performance. Statistically, McElroy was an unimpressive 15-34 for 147 yards, 0 TDs, and 2 sacks. The fact that he also had zero picks means that he didn’t do any permanent damage to his season stats, but he plummeted from 6th in the nation in passing efficiency to 26th, enough to take him right off the Heisman radar, at least for the moment.
What actually happened was that Greg faced pressure the likes of which he has never seen. All respect to the Virginia Tech D, but from a pass pressure and pass defense standpoint they are not in the same ballpark as Ole Miss, at least based on their performance against Alabama.
McElroy’s response to the pressure was not so bad considering he hadn’t seen the like before. He’s a smart guy and hopefully he will learn from this and handle pressure a bit better next week against South Carolina, who also figures to put up a stout defensive challenge, and later against LSU. Such experiences would stand to serve Greg well should Bama make it to a potential SEC championship game that already has the media – and let's face it, yours truly – salivating.
He certainly did not fall apart against Ole Miss the way some quarterbacks have fallen apart against the Tide this year, but he did begin to rush his throws as the game went on. For example, on Bama’s first possession of the second half McElroy, under pressure, badly overthrew a wide-open Darius Hanks on first down, and then threw it away in Peek’s direction on 3rd and 6 when he was not under pressure and Hanks was again open across the middle. Overall, he probably had as many questionable decisions Saturday as in any other two games combined.
Some time in the film room this week could really pay dividends for Greg.
Although he did get up slowly after one pass play, for the most part Jones looked healthy and quick out there, like the old Julio. His stats were not fancy, but I’m crediting that to the Rebel D, not to #8. He looked 100% or close to it to me for the first time since the Virginia Tech game.
ALL THOSE JUMP BALLS TO JULIO WHILE COVERED BY HALF THE OLE MISS D
Please do not ask me what that was all about. As we explained last week, going up after jump balls is not something that Jones has shown to be one of his strengths.
I usually am not real crazy about that play call anyway. Once a game is plenty. Generally, I like to have my QB surveying the field and looking for an open guy, especially when you have McElroy who is pretty good at finding the open man.
JULIO AND THE REFS
Was it personal? For whatever reason, the big fella caught a rough time from the refs. At least two extremely blatant pass interference penalties were not called,along with a sideline late hit. And on what may have been the one successful jump ball of the day, there was no review when Jones appeared to snag it from double coverage and then got the ball stripped away after his feet touched down in the end zone. Julio, who is not particularly demonstrative or given to arguing with refs, came up holding his arms in the touchdown signal.
SETTING THE TONE
However, Jones’ one bad play of the day – a dropped pass over the middle on Bama’s first play from scrimmage – may have set an unfortunate tone for the Tide offense, which went on to struggle at times. If he hauls that one in, Bama starts the game with a first down instead of a three and out. As much as football is a game of momentum, you have to wonder what would have happened the rest of the game.
Speaking of momentum and setting the tone, Bama’s defense set one pretty firmly on Ole Miss’ first third-down play. Robbie Green, who had just allowed a 22-yard punt return by inexplicably running past Marshay Green before he fielded the punt, made up for it when he came free on a blitz up the middle. Snead hurriedly overthrew his receiver and Justin Woodall snatched it off his shoelaces.
In case that wasn’t enough tone-setting, Marcell Dareus and Eryk Anders forced Snead to rush his next two throws as well. The Rebel QB took a pretty good shot after delivering each of his first three passes.
One more tone-setting moment: I loved the fake punt call on Bama’s first possession. It didn’t lead to points, but it sent a signal that the Tide did not come to Oxford to play scared.
INGRAM AND RICHARDSON
I’ve had an Ingram and Richardson heading every week, but as much as I like the freshman, Mark Ingram is kind of telling me to make it a one-man heading in the future. To be sure, Richardson ran like a man possessed in the handful of carries he got Saturday, but the fumble insured it would not be a positive ball-carrying day for him.
In his defense, he succumbed to a strong two-arm strip while another guy was holding him up – but still, a fumble is a fumble. I love how aggressively Trent runs after contact, but he has to realize that bull-rushing through stone walls increases the chance of a turnover and lock it up a little harder when he's got two or three guys hanging off him, which is not a rare event. Lord knows he has the arms for locking up footballs.
But you’ve gotta give Richardson props for his pass-blocking. He had a couple of very nice blitz pickups, including upending a linebacker right in front of McElroy on a key play, the nifty sideline completion to Peek inside the Rebel 5.
As for Ingram, man is he ever getting it done with the rock, finding the holes and exploding through them, while hauling in every pass thrown in his direction. Just as McElroy’s sub-par statistical outing pulled him off the Heisman radar, Mark stepped up to take his place with one more explosive performance. ESPN’s Heisman Predictor has Ingram as #3 right now, a showing that McElroy has never matched.
All the arguments in my Greg McElroy For Heisman article, which was actually more about why Bama fans should support any Bama player who is a Heisman candidate than it was about why McElroy should win the Heisman, apply here. Ingram is a Heisman candidate. You are a fan. Go out and flap yer lips. It’s your job.
INGRAM’S TD RUN
Mark did a nice job of stringing it out to where the hole was and then decisively cutting through it – but other than that, his job was easy. It was easy because: (1) Colin Peek sealed the line, leaving only three guys in space in a position to make the stop; (2) Julio engaged one of them and pushed him back on his heels; (3) Hanks cut another one’s feet out from under him; and most impressively (4) Barrett Jones hopped out into the second level and locked up a free linebacker. All Ingram had to do was run. None of those guys who otherwise had a chance to tackle him got within arm’s reach.
Jones may already be our best offensive lineman.
Well. It was a tough pass rush we were going against, no questions asked. But this area needs some work to stand up to other tough pass rushes we will see.
Last week I wrote that Mike Johnson and Drew Davis were the only Bama linemen to get flat-out beat on pass protection more than once this season. This week they were joined by James Carpenter and Colin Peek. Mark Ingram got beat twice just on Saturday.
McElroy has been blind-sided at least 4 or 5 times this year, and we are lucky the hits have only resulted in one fumble lost and no picks. At least a couple of those have come after McElroy has been hanging out several seconds looking downfield. Those can’t be put on the left tackle, who can't realistically be expected to hold a block more than 5-6 seconds, but there have been two or three times that a guy came outside on the blindside all too quickly.
Carpenter, whom I’m not sure has played left tackle before, hasn’t been beat on the inside but has been beat on the outside multiple times. At any other position, you want to guard the inside more carefully than the outside simply because an inside rush is a quicker route to the QB. When you get beat on the outside - and you're playing a position other than left tackle - the passer has a little more time which may give him a fighting chance to get rid of it without taking a sack.
It’s different at left tackle, where an outside rusher coming free threatens a right-handed QB’s blind side. At left tackle, you risk a sack when you give up an inside rush, but you risk a turnover or worse – and by “worse,” I mean an injury to the QB – when you give a free pass to an outside rusher.
Saturday was probably Reamer’s finest day at Bama. He had a pick, a stolen ball on a punt return, a blocked punt, and a physical stop for a 3-yard loss after Ole Miss’ first successful play, an 8-yard run on 1st and 10 in the first quarter. After Reamer’s stop, the Rebs wound up three-and-outing again.
It would be ironic if he lost playing time to Jerrell Harris after a game like that.
Snead looked psychologically bruised throughout most of the first half, but he seemed to rise above it in the third quarter, zipping in several completions to tightly-covered receivers. The only problem was that that all of the Reb receivers were always tightly-covered, forcing Snead to be perfect or be burnt. Eventually perfect was bound to give way to burnt, most notably on the Kareem Jackson pick that absolutely killed Ole Miss’ last hope – even after Trent Richardson fumbled it right back to the Mississippians.
All the picks were snazzy: Rolando and Reamer showed good hands on tip drill-type picks, and Javy absolutely stole his, but Kareem’s was my favorite. The guy looked open when Snead threw, and the throw looked accurate, but Jackson broke on the throw while the receiver waited for the ball to arrive. It didn’t.
Snead was 1-7 for 8 yards and a pick against Jackson.
Ole Miss dominated, or at least did something in that neighborhood, yet the score for the quarter was 3-3.
(who has burned Bama in the past) got 37 yards rushing and receiving, fumbled it away once, and appeared to receive an injury to his tender feelings in the 4th quarter.
GO FOR IT
With 12:18 left in the second quarter, 4th and half a yard on the Ole Miss 42, Bama punted. Let me count the reasons this was a bad idea: (1) 10-1 we make it with a power run. (2) The Rebel offense had been absolutely anemic, and there was little danger from turning it over to them on their own 42. (3) We were totally murdering them on time of possession and had a chance to wear their D right out if we made a first down; in fact, and though I know I say this with 20-20 hindsight, this just might’ve been a runaway with lots of Bama scoring if we had kept driving right then. (4) Of course, you’re punting to a short field from the opponent’s 42.
Can you tell I hate this decision? But later, Houston Nutt made one that was even worse: on 4th and 1 on the Bama 7-yard-line with 7:49 left in the 4th quarter, trailing 16-0, Nutt went for the field goal. Can you say “timid and afraid?”
Berkeley Professor David Romer has extensively analyzed the statistics regarding going for it on 4th down and concluded that teams at every level kick it away far too often. His results are keyed on winning or losing games, which is the best indicator possible, without argument.
I find Romer’s conclusions very believable (not to mention very rigorously derived). If turnovers are so wicked bad, why are punts tons better? I’m not saying go for it all the time. I’m just saying more, and I’m saying that these two situations were no-brainers.
I have missed a couple of weeks of flogging this subject, but it’s not because there was nothing to talk about. Kickoff return coverage has continued to be Bama’s weak spot, by far.
There were at least some small signs this week that the situation could be improving. The Rebels’ first return came out to the 44, but there was never any danger that the returner would spring it the distance, and a lot of his yards came from old-fashioned good running. Afterwards, they had several chances and never got much.
Leigh had the good grace to pick the FIU game as his game to throw the bit, with two missed extra points. Otherwise, his season stats are now quite outstanding: 14-16 on field goals and 22-24 on extra points.
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