27 October 2010
About the time Alabama capped off a 10-quarter streak of uninspired play by taking only a 13-10 lead over the hapless Vols to intermission, all that second-title-in-a-row cockiness of the early season started to seem like a distant memory. But never mind, it's back now, after a dominating second half sent the Tide to its bye week on a welcome confidence-building note.
If you have been reading these columns, you know that I have been yammering for weeks about our abandonment of the vertical passing game, and opining that the absence of loosening up the opposing D with up-top throws is exactly why our running game has struggled. Today I am a happy camper, because we finally decided to go up-top a few times Saturday. Not only did it work very well, but it had the predicted effect of amplifying our ground attack.
Before Greg McElroy hit Julio Jones for 42 yards with about 11 minutes left in the second quarter, Alabama had carried 9 times for 43 yards in 19 minutes of play. In the remaining 41 minutes, Alabama carried 24 times for 167 yards.
In other words, our "pre-vertical" running game averaged 4.8 yards per carry and 2.3 yards rushing per game minute, which would equate to 138 yards rushing in a 60-minute game. Once we started going vertical, we averaged 6.8 yards per carry and 4.1 yards rushing per game minute, which would equate to 246 yards rushing in a 60-minute game. Those numbers are a lot like the numbers we put up regularly in 2009 and early 2010, when we made it a point of going up-top through the air early in just about every game.
If we're looking at other reasons why the ground game has struggled a bit, I'm wondering if Mark Ingram is fully healthy. I've been thinking he might be missing a spot of quickness since the Arkansas game, and it really seemed to show up in his long run on Saturday. I'm thinking Mark gets another 15-20 out of that if he's 100%. Hopefully a week off will do him right. If not, Richardson may get the most carries from here on out.
After Mark's first couple of weeks back after the injury, I thought he was playing at his highest level ever. He hasn't looked like that since.
We also shouldn't ignore Fluker's absence when we're opining on the running game woes. I'm hearing the big guy will be in the lineup in Baton Rouge.
I wasn't on the practice field the first day Julio Jones stepped onto it in August 2008, but if he wasn't our best receiver that day, he sure was by Opening Day of that season. He has so consistently been our best receiving option, and by so far, over the three subsequent years that I don't think it's a stretch to say that Julio Jones has been our most valuable player throughout his entire career. If we had any other player who was so irreplaceable, it could only have been Rolondo McClain.
Nevertheless, while it has been a pleasure watching Julio's uniquely physical way of playing his position, it has been a little frustrating as well to see him failing to make plays on catchable balls that guys like A.C. Green and Alshon Jeffery consistently make. It has always seemed as if Julio is a little more atletically gifted than those guys, and no player could possibly work harder at his craft, and yet . . . .
This week it looked as if the light bulb came on for Julio, and he finally seemed to get it that his job is to go up and attack the ball as soon as it gets within his reaction radius. Saturday, Julio repeatedly made aggressive moves on the ball. He became a very easy man for McElroy to get the ball to and, as always, really knows what to do with it once he has it.
If it's really a mindset shift, and not just a case of an athlete in a groove for one contest, we might be in store for a special last few games from #8. Really special. Saturday, for the first time, he dominated a defense the way Ozzie Newsome used to do.
McElroy still isn't, and never will be, the quickest at going through his progressions, and he's not the quickest at getting rid of the ball. But he sure stood in and took some shots on Saturday, and still threw downfield accurately.
Last year Greg struggled mid-season, then played his best ball late in the year. Maybe we'll see that again this year. Would be nice.
From last year's defensive backfield we lost six of our top seven to graduation, early NFL entry, or ineligibility: Kareem Jackson, Javy Arenas, Justin Woodall, Marquis Johnson, Robbie Green, and Chris Rogers: all gone with the wind. As a result, it has been written in ink, and many times, that the defensive backfield would be the team's weakest link this year.
The drumbeat has continued through the season: Alabama's defensive backfield is "soft" and "green" and "can be taken advantage of." Is it true? Let's look at a few stats.
- Interceptions: Alabama leads the nation with 15.
- Pass efficiency defense: Alabama is 4th in the nation with a 94.31 rating, and leads the SEC by a mile, with LSU coming in 2nd with a 106.51 rating that puts them 12th in the nation. This even though we have already faced Ryan Mallet, and Stephen Garcia played the game of his life against us.
- Sacks: 104th in the nation.
Do those stats prove that the defensive backfield is Alabama's weak link? Not just NO, but HELL NO!!! With virtually no pass rush to speak of, our DBs are playing shutdown defense game after game.
We have the best defensive backfield in the nation right now, and it is only getting better game by game.
Overall, though, we gave up 315 yards to a team that averages 321. Not one of our best defensive games, and consistent with my season-long observation that the level of our defense tends to correlate on a game-to-game basis with the health and activity level of Courtney Upshaw. I'm still thinking that if he comes back from the break healthier than he has been, we're going to be hard to beat.
You haven't caught me talking about punt return coverage and kickoff return coverage this year. Well shame on me for only talking about bad things. Last year our kickoff return coverage sucked, and I talked about it all the time. This year I have observed excellence in silence. OK, here's an obligatory brief mention of the fact that our kick coverage has been outstanding all season, both punts and kickoffs. (Knocking furiously on wood. . . .)
Hope y'all enjoyed the cigars. I got a free lunch Sunday out of beating the spread.
Around College Football
My money says that if we win out, we are in the BCS Championship game. But there are still too many scenarios where it doesn't play out that way, and we should know some more about how scary those scenarios are after this weekend.
Obviously, it would be ideal if Missouri and Michigan St. lose this weekend - and I put ‘em both as underdogs. What would not be ideal would be if both those teams lose big. And I'd just as soon not see Nebraska thumping Missouri too energetically, either.
Something else that would be pretty far from ideal would be Auburn losing. They've got a couple of tough games coming up, with both Old Miss and UGA obviously playing at a much higher level than they were the first half of the season. With so many BCS scenarios in play, we badly need the impressive regular-season finish of beating an undefeated and high-ranked team to solidify our chances of getting in over an unbeaten TCU, Boise St., Utah, Missouri, or Michigan St.
If the stars align properly, we pass all those teams even if they stay unbeaten. But I don't think we stay ahead of Mizzou or MSU unless we get impressive wins.
Oh, and you won't see me pulling for USC, OR Lane Kiffen (should he happen to be somewhere else) too often. But they're my faves this weekend.
Cam Newton is obviously the Heisman front-runner, and for good reason. But I have seen too many Bama fans already scheming our Iron Bowl D, and I wouldn't go there.
For one thing, Saban's Ds always begin with stopping the opposing QB from running. Just as a matter of routine, our guys keep their lanes and contain, and every running QB we have faced has gotten frustrated. Cam Newton may be the best running QB we've seen under Saban, but we've faced some really good ones like Tim Tebow twice, Tyrod Taylor, and Jeremy Masoli, and kept them all relatively in check. I'm sure we'll have a few anti-Cam wrinkles, but I don't think we have to make any radical changes to contain him. If we just perform our normal gameplan at a high level, the Camster will have some problems he hasn't had before.
I'm actually more worried about the LSU game than about the Auburn game. I think Auburn and LSU are relatively close to equal, and we are playing LSU on the road and Auburn in Brant-Denny. Plus all LSU has to do to suddenly become a world-beater is to have Jordan Jefferson pull just one game out of his rear end where he plays at his 2009 level.
If Jefferson plays against us in 2010 the way he played in 2009 when he was in the game, that is going to be a tough game to come out of with a W. I'm not saying I'm complacent about the Iron Bowl, but I don't see anything about that game that worries me like thoughts of Jordan Jefferson simply returning to his previous form. That worries me.
Our strength of schedule is not very high right now, but check back in a month. It will be different, real different.
With USC, Texas, and Florida all officially on the fritz this year, who does that leave as the #1 college football program in the land? Three guesses and the first two don't count.
We only have one real competitor, Ohio St., and does anyone think the Ohio St. program is really ahead of ours right now?
And, not that it has anything to do with who is currently the #1 program, but it's not breaking my heart to see Notre Dame going down the tubes, either. I hear there is a movement in the ND student body to rush the field after Notre Dame loses to Utah - to celebrate the losingest senior class in Notre Dame football history. Eh eh eh.<-->
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