23 September 2009
I'll be honest and tell you that I have very little interest in analyzing what Alabama did well on either offense or defense against North Texas. Bama won the game 53-7, and it could have been 83-7 if the Tide coaches had been interested in that. The answer to the question - what did Alabama do well against North Texas? Everything. Extra points were a bit dicey, but that discussion wouldn't take up a lot of space.
So instead of trying to give a run down of the one specific game, I thought I'd take a look at where the Tide stands from a statistical standpoint at the 1/4 mark of the season.
It is important to take into consideration that two of the Tide's three games came against vastly inferior opponents. It is unlikely that Bama will put up 500 yards of offense on a routine basis against SEC defenses (Arkansas not withstanding). Virginia Tech has an SEC caliber defense, and the Tide managed close to that 500, though. And while FIU isn't in Bama's class, I think they have a pretty decent football team. North Texas is a different story, but I've already covered that.
Since this is the article about the quarterback(s), we'll put all of that aside for a minute and just concentrate on the signal callers.
Is there any Bama fan, anywhere in the world, that is less than thrilled by what Greg McElroy has done in his first three games as Alabama's quarterback? If there is such a fan, then I don't want to meet him/her.
A look at Greg's numbers will tell you that he is 46 of 69 with 647 yards, four touchdowns, one interception, and one lost fumble. From a negative standpoint, two turnovers in three games is more than I'm sure he and Coach Saban would like. But it would be an over-statement at this point to say that it is a concern. For all of the negative things that folks have said about the John Parker Wilson era at Alabama, his 2008 season was one that was ripe with ball security.
There are a lot of things that concern you when you turn an offense over to a new player after three years with another, and chief among those is ball security. Younger and more inexperienced guys turn the ball over at a greater rate than experienced ones. That was certainly the case with Wilson, who had far too many turnovers in 2006 and 2007. What Bama got out of him as a senior is what you would expect from a three year starter, though. He took care of the ball, and made just enough plays to lead the Tide to a 12-0 regular season.
While Greg isn't a young guy - he's a redshirt junior - he is in his first season as the Tide's starting quarterback. And as such, I expect there to be some turnovers. He's done a far better job than I expected of making good decisions. He's only had a couple of situations where he has thrown the ball into heavy coverage, and that's why he has only one interception. In fact, both of his turnovers came from him actually getting hit.
It would be reasonable to expect the Tide offensive line to get better as the season continues. It is also reasonable to expect that the LSUs and Auburns of the world will generate a better pass rush than the two Sun Belt opponents that the Tide has faced. Virginia Tech did a great job of pressuring the quarterback, and Greg's worst numbers of the season came in that game. And that's pretty much a constant in football - the more pressure a quarterback faces, the worse he's going to play.
That's not to say that Greg was bad in that game. In his first game leading the Bama offensive attack - remember that Mark Ingram actually started the game at quarterback - he struggled through an uneasy first half. He was just six of 18 passing with one interception in that half, including a string of nine consecutive incompletions.
The good news is, despite the pressure from Tech in the second half, he righted the ship. And since half time of the Virginia Tech game, he is 40 of 51 passing. While his overall completion percentage of 66.7% would set the Alabama record for single season percentage, that 40 of 51 stretch is an astounding 78.4%. He won't keep that up, mostly because the competition will be better.
Of course, the flip side of the coin for the defenses being better is that the vast majority of those 51 pass attempts have come while Julio Jones was on the sidelines. Greg threw the ball in Julio's direction twice during the opening drive of the Florida International game, and after Julio dropped the second one, he hasn't played again. He hasn't been punished, though. Rather a deep knee bruise kept him sidelined for the remainder of that game and the entirety of the North Texas game.
It would be reasonable to expect any quarterback finding things easier when his best receiver is available to him. The fact that Greg has been as effective in the Tide's last two games without Julio is astounding. Yes, I know the competition was bad. But after seeing the entire Tide offense struggle to find a secondary receiving threat in 2008, and see that entire offense struggle when missing star players, it is nice to see the offense find a way despite the absence in 2009.
Back to Greg, though... it hasn't just been his efficiency with the ball. He's been accurate in throwing the ball downfield, which is something Tide fans have longed for since the days of Gary Hollingsworth. While guys like Jay Barker and Brodie Croyle had big arms, Gary was the last Tide quarterback that found regular success down the field. Greg's ability to find guys like Marquis Maze, Mike McCoy, and Darius Hanks downfield will do wonders for a Tide rushing attack that doesn't need a lot of help.
I all Greg has had nine pass plays go for greater than 20 yards, and another six go between 15 and 19 yards. Granted, some of those are short passes that have turned into long gains. But the fact is that Alabama has done a fantastic job of getting big plays out of the passing game. For the record, Julio Jones has a long play of 16 yards, so he isn't the guy making those big plays... yet.
Greg has also completed passes to eleven different guys in the Tide's first three games. When you win big you get to play a lot of guys, but Greg's completions have come during the meet of the game. Two other Tide players have caught passes from Star Jackson in mop up duty, but Greg's have all come when they mattered. For a Bama offense (and fan base) that has seen four straight years of one receiver dominating the receptions (first D.J. Hall, then Julio), it is fantastic to see the ball being spread around. There are six Bama players who already have more than five receptions, and none with more than ten. And ten of the 13 guys who have caught passes have caught more than one.
It isn't just the passing game that is reaping the benefit of McElroy's play. Your rushing game is always going to come easier when you are a threat to throw the ball, but Greg is affecting things in a more tangible way. Greg has made a ton of adjustments at the line of scrimmage. It's not just audibling into a run play if the defense is sitting in a soft zone. Greg is also changing the direction that running plays are going by quickly identifying where the blitz is coming from.
Just last week he revealed in an interview that Trent Richard's 35 yard touchdown run against Florida International was supposed to be a run to the right. Greg identified that the blitz was coming from that side, changed to play to a run to the left, and Trent went the distance. Having a quarterback that can make opposnig defenses pay for over-pursuits and aggressive play calling is crucial to having a consistent and steady offense.
The other thing that has surprised me is his overall athleticism. We knew he was smart - Coach Saban thinks he could be a Rhodes Scholar. We knew he had a good arm - we saw the touchdown pass to Marquis Maze in the 36-0 drubbing of Auburn. But I wasn't prepared for how well Greg has been able to pull the ball down and run. He's not just running at will, though. When he's made the decision to run, it's been because of the lack of an open receiver, or the lack of time to throw the ball. He's already scored one rushing touchdown on the year in this type of situation, and I expect we'll see more as the season continues.
Greg still has to prove that he can have that type of effecient day against an SEC caliber defense. For all of the great numbers, it is important to remember that most of them have come against Sun Belt defenses. The positive is that while his completion percentage of 50% against Virginia Tech was poor, the second half was solid. He was nine of 12 in that half, against a defense that is very SEC-like in its athleticism, speed, and play calling.
Greg's quarterback rating is 161.66, which ranks him 16th in the nation and fourth in the SEC. If he can remain among the nation's top 25 quarterbacks, Bama has a great chance to play for championships.
Other than being 3-0 at this point, the best thing about Bama's season is that lots of young guys have had the opportunity to play. That's vitally important at every position, but especially at quarterback. As great as Greg McElroy has been, he's one unfortunate play away from being on the sidelines.
Star Jackson has played in two games, but his action in the FIU game was limited to a few hand-offs to kill the clock. Aganist North Texas he got a chance to really run the offense, including several series with the first unit on the field. The coaching staff took advantage of a rare opportunity and actually let Star run the two-minute drill to close out the first half. That will happen occasionally if a team is running a two quarterback system. But for a pro-style offense like Bama, with one absolute starter at QB, it is almost unheard of. It was a brilliant decision on the part of Coach Saban and staff, and the Tide scored a field goal on the possession.
It would be incorrect to say that Star was fantastic. A quick look at the numbers will show you that he was nine of 13, which means his completion percentage of 69.2% is actually higher than McElroy's. The reality is that he was only once asked to throw the ball more than ten yards downfield. To his credit, the one time he did that, he hit Brandon Gibson for a nice third down conversion of 21 yards.
There were two misplays with Jackson at quarterback, both where the ball was snapped before he was ready, and the Tide lost a number of yards. While it might be easy to blame the center, Jackson admitted that in both cases the center's job was to snap the ball on the first movement from the quarterback - a frequent time management device. Unfortunately Star wasn't ready for either snap, and while Bama recovered both fumbles, those are silly mistakes that just can't happen.
He also had a silly delay of game penalty after Bama had set up a first and goal at the five yard line. The play was signaled in with plenty of time to spare, Star just simply took too much time getting the play off, and Bama ended up settling for a field goal. Again, to his credit, he was quicker with the next few snaps.
I don't want to make it sound as though I'm down on Star; quite the contrary. Those three mistakes aside, he played very well. Obviously you have to take into consideration that the game was a blow-out, and the competition bad. But he ran the Tide offense in front of 93,000 fans and a regional television audience. He not only took the snaps, but he moved the Tide up the field enough to score 17 points.
He did a solid job of making quick, accurate throws. He threw one into double coverage, and an out-route that hung in the air for way too long. But he also completed nine passes, with many of those coming while he was on the run. While McElroy is a good athlete, this brings a different dynamic to the Tide offense. While I wasn't totally blown away by his overall peformance, the fact that he managed 87 yards passing in his first real chance to lead the offense, I'd have to say that I was pleased.
Alabama needs to keep Greg McElroy healthy, but I'm not as horrified at the thought of Jackson having to run a series or two as I was prior to his time in the North Texas game.
It's also worth mentioning that Thomas Darrah has also played in two games. He actually saw time before Jackson in the FIU game, but I think that had more to do with Jackson missing most of the week with the flu. Darrah hasn't attempted a pass yet, but he's played. And any time a walk-on player gets to play, it's a pretty cool thing. When that guy gets to play at quarterback, it's just a little cooler.
|< Prev||Next >|