01 September 2008
: Living out here in the San Francisco metro area, reasonable opportunities to attend Bama games do not often arise. The good thing about that, though, is ESPN Gameplan, which allows me to watch every game, and the DVR, which allows me to watch every game over and over again.
Putting those together allows me to make this promise: I will watch every game three times, and then I will put it all together and give you a weekly view From the Couch.]
The first good news of the season was couch news. My Gameplan subscription actually did work! The only reason I had prior to actual game-time to believe that it would work was that Comcast had promised me it would work, and a Comcast promise is mighty thin reassurance on such an important question.
And so to the game.
Old-time Tide dominance
was on display in the Georgia Dome on Saturday night. Clemson hasn't lined up against the Tide since 1975, and for those Tiger fans old enough to remember the series of Bama-Clemson games played during the Bryant era, it was just like old times. In other words, it was a dominant Bama performance featuring power running, a smash-mouth defense, and the complete squashing of Clemson's will to compete.
All the parts meshed together. Let's look at them.
It's usually not smart to draw conclusions from a single game, but if this is what a Jim McElwain offense looks like, I'll take it. Bama identified Clemson's weakness and threw jabs at it until it was a bloody mess.
It was just the kind of offense that McElwain's press clippings said he would bring, and just the sort that Saban supposedly likes: balanced, methodical, virtually mistake-free, and leaning slightly toward conservative.
We primarily went with three wides, like last year. We were slightly more likely to line up a tight end in the backfield, en route to a power run, than last season, but that may just have been for this game-plan as opposed to a season-long tendency.
One particularly cute wrinkle came when we ran a no-huddle to prevent Clemson from changing its personnel, then lined up Baron Huber at split end, Travis McCall at H-back, and ran a power sweep to Huber's side. Both Huber and McCall made their blocks, and the play was successful.
John Parker Wilson was inaccurate almost every time he threw down field, leading to a 6.0 yards per attempt average that is rather meager when you consider how much time the offensive line consistently gave him and that his receivers didn't drop a single pass. There wasn't much else to complain about, though, as Wilson's play was almost entirely devoid of the things that made close observers wince so many times last year.
Even for a confirmed Wilson skeptic like myself, there was just a single play, a 3rd-quarter pass play where J.P. scrambled from the pocket, drifted to the right side-line and threw it away out-of-bounds without ever stopping to look back at the left side of the field, that recalled the ghosts of '07. And even that play, on re-viewing, showed that Clemson pursuers were a little too close for Wilson to have had any realistic opportunity of stopping to turn around and look.
Several times Wilson looked for his secondary receiver, something he has rarely done in the past. There was none of that infuriating tendency to throw it away when not under pressure, nor of that diving into the tank at a hint of adversity.
Instead, we got a senior quarterback executing the offense relentlessly, methodically, and without mistakes. In light of that, a few inaccurate downfield passes are no big deal, especially since every single miss was to the safe side, which meant that, as nxojkt noted in his game story,
Wilson never even came close to getting picked.
All I have wanted from Wilson this year is a level-headed approach to the game. Physically, he is not the second coming of Joe Willie Namath, but he is plenty good. He has a pretty strong arm, a pretty accurate arm, a quick release on short throws, acceptable mobility, a nice knack for sliding out of the pocket into an open space, and plenty of experience at this level.
If he just executes his own game consistently, he will put a lot of points on the board with this Tide offense. Sure, a pass may be a bit off-target from time to time, but we can accept Wilson's physical talents just as they are, so long as his head stays where it was Saturday. And we will be happy as pie. Not rhubarb pie, either, something good like my Aunt Lil's chocolate icebox pie.
Later in the season, we will hit teams with different weaknesses, and I'm sure we will have an opponent or two, if not more, where the game plan requires us to throw down-field, and not just dink and dunk. I'm plenty confident Wilson can do that, too; he may have been off on his downfield throws this week, but that's not a regular feature of his game.
One final note: another reason JPW only averaged 6.0 yards per attempt Saturday night is that Clemson is actually pretty good against the short pass. We saw a number of nice one-on-one open-field tackles by Clemson's veteran DBs that limited our yards after catch.
Everybody knows what we saw Saturday night. It was a dominant power performance from two power backs who kept each other fresh throughout the game. But bear this in mind: Clemson is one of those teams that relies on small, speedy defensive ends and outside linebackers. We hit Clemson with power on the corners, and increasingly up the middle as the game wore on, because that's where Clemson was weak. We won't necessarily play that same game against every team.
Mark Ingram is clearly our best running back. He's the first guy we've had in a while who can hit a pile-up and drive it back a couple of yards. He did an excellent job of picking up blitzes when he was in on pass plays, and considering his bloodlines, he can probably catch pretty well, too.
Glenn Coffee looked as if the five pounds of muscle he added during the off season is having a big impact. He's pretty much the same guy he was until it comes time to finish the play, then he finds two yards somewhere he wouldn't have found it last season. Time will tell how much of that shows up when we line up against a bigger and more run-stopping-oriented front seven, but I like what I see so far.
I hear Terry Grant was bothered by shin splints. I hope so, because he was unimpressive in the little bit he played against Clemson. It was unsurprising to see him not be featured against Clemson, but against other teams with other weaknesses, he might be an important part of the game plan, at least if he can get healthy and run more authoritatively than he did Saturday night.
Finally, you have to give it up for Roy Upchurch to sit there cold for most of the game and then come in and contribute 67 productive late-game yards via rushing and receiving. Roy's surgeries have cost him the half-step of speed that might've made him a gamebreaker, but he still runs hard and has soft hands. If Grant can't find a different level, Upchurch will provide the depth we need. He was also quite active on special teams.
It may have been all the Julio hype that made us decide to cross Clemson up and throw to the tight end so much - on the other hand, it may have been Clemson's veteran defensive backfield - but for whatever reason we didn't really get to watch our wideouts all that much. We did see one fabulous catch by Maze (called back), and an excellent spear of a low-throw dart by Julio for a crucial third-down conversion in the second half. What we didn't see was a drop, by anybody.
I had hoped to see more B.J. Scott, but really, we just weren't relying much on wideouts in this game. No passes were thrown to Nikita Stover, Earl Alexander, Darius Hanks, or Chris Jackson.
OK, I said - and more than once, I'm afraid - that this would not be the year
that Bama fans' annual speculation that "this is the year we're going to start throwing to the tight end more" came true. And hey, listen, the season is still young. Seven receptions is not many for a whole season.
But so far, it appears as if I was wrong, spectacularly wrong, cosmically wrong.
J.P. Wilson lit up the soft spots in the Clemson D last night with no less than SEVEN first-half completions
to our tight ends, one to Travis McCall and six to Nick Walker. One of Walker's first-half grabs was made in the end zone, and he also snagged one for a crucial third-down conversion in the second half. Otherwise, the damage was done in the first half, en route to a 23-3 lead that proved to be uncatchable.
Both guys also blocked well, especially McCall, who was frequently called on to block linebackers in the open field and usually succeeded (although it was McCall's missed block that led to the one Clemson big defensive play of the game, when Terry Grant was dumped for a seven-yard loss.)
We really do have a very
veteran offensive line, and at least in my own humble opinion, veteran-ness tends to be key to offensive line play. Whether it was because of experience, size, or talent, our offensive line was a dominant force last night.
I don't really recall seeing a Bama line looking like that against a Top Ten team, i.e., making the de facto line of scrimmage on offense actually two or three yards downfield, since we stuffed Ohio St. 35-6 in the 1978 Sugar Bowl. If our QB had fumbled the snap eight times against Clemson, as Jeff Rutledge and Steadman Shealy did against Ohio St. in that game, it would have been just as meaningless this time as it was then, because neither Ohio St. then nor Clemson Saturday night was ever in any sort of a position to pick up a ball that was close to the line of scrimmage.
Sure, Clemson's defensive line started
every play right on the line of scrimmage. They just didn't stay there.
If there was any weak link in the OL, it was Drew Davis getting run around a couple of times by Clemson's celebrated freshman Da'Quon Bowers, but if the hype is to be believed, no tackle is going to be able to prevent Bowers from running around them, and even so, Davis rarely let Bowers actually pressure the quarterback, mostly managing to push him deep enough to get him out of the play.
On running plays, there was no weak link on this line. We ran right behind the untested Davis on the first two plays from scrimmage, successfully, and ran behind everybody else successfully as the night went on. Almost no Bama offensive lineman was beaten on any running play all night.
But still, here's a toast to Andre Smith's health. Smith was no less than awesome Saturday night, but it's also worthy of note that when he went down, Mike Johnson rotated to tackle, David Ross filled in at guard, and our running game missed nary a beat.
From trying to turn it over on their first play from scrimmage to succeeding on their next play from scrimmage to getting their running game stuffed on their next possession, it apparently did not take long for Clemson to conclude that their regular offensive game wouldn't work Saturday night. The Tigers played the rest of the game in emergency mode, handing the ball to their erstwhile "Thunder and Lightning" duo of star running backs James Davis and C.J. Spiller only eight times in the entire game.
Problem was, emergency mode didn't work either. Bama threw a big, physical defense at Clemson that out-matched the Tigers in everything but speed and was even with them on that. Clemson couldn't knock the Tide back and couldn't out-run them, and seemed to recognize this and go into the tank pretty early on.
The result: ZERO
yards for their vaunted rushing attack, nothing special from pre-season all-star QB Cullen Harper, and only three offensive points.
This is how Bama did it.
Although it all starts with the words "Terrence Cody," it certainly doesn't end there, because Cody only played a little over half the snaps, while Clemson's offense was impotent all the time.
Brandon Deaderick played close to every snap, at least until the second-team D came in late, and Clemson's tackles had a heckuva time keeping him off the quarterback. Deaderick got one sack and got quickly into the quarterback's vicinity on a regular basis during passing plays. On running plays, he stood his ground and made Clemson's backs seek a hole elsewhere.
Bobby Greenwood looked improved over last year, but not improved enough to keep Lorenzo Washington on the bench once Zo learns the position. Washington is new to the college DE position, but looked like an old hand, showcasing a variety of pass rush moves and a solid, mobile reaction to the run.
Marcel Dareus also showed some good pass pressure, although there were also a couple of times he allowed himself to be stymied when unable to get off the first block.
Josh Chapman may not have figured in the stats, but he played a lot, held the middle of the line firmly, and Clemson didn't run successfully when he was in there. Luther Davis was also in the rotation.
As for Terrence Cody, what do you expect from a guy who is 27' tall, weighs 40,000 pounds, and is the fastest guy on the team? Well, so long as its not more than one season before going to the NFL, your expectations are likely to be fulfilled.
Cody - who in reality is 6'5", about 365, and shifty-footed - is a difference-maker. He spent a lot of time in Clemson's backfield and the rest clogging the middle of the line of scrimmage. One-blocker responses were ludicrously inadequate, and even two could not move him aside.
The question mark on Cody has been, and remains, endurance. He only played a bit more than half the game Saturday night, and that was in an air-conditioned venue against a team that controlled the ball less than 19 minutes. How much will he be able to play in a day game in Fayetteville? Enquiring minds want to know.
The Tide swapped the positions of defensive tackles and ends much less often than they did last year, although there was at least one series in the third quarter where Greenwood lined up between Cody and Deaderick on successive plays.
Even though we only blitzed a handful of times, Harper had a chance to look around on no more than two or three occasions, which means that the DL and jack got a very nice pass-rush push most of the time. Normally Harper had to drop, set and deliver right away.
Even in a game where your opponent only runs 48 plays, you'd like to get more than 11 tackles from your linebackers, especially since two or three of corps-leading tackler Erik Anders' five total were on special teams, not defense, leaving actual linebackers playing linebacker with less than 10 stops total, including assists.
Fortunately, Bama's strong line play took a lot of pressure off the backers. In addition, Saban compensated by playing five defensive backs for much of the night, with Corey Reamer the guy who would typically sit, despite his nice early strip.
Rolondo McClain was solid, but he seemed to be playing a little conservatively, without the aggression he ended with at the end of the season.
Hightower was active but showed his inexperience. For example, on one first-half play he sniffed out Clemson's bubble screen, but took a too-aggressive angle at the ball carrier that allowed the protecting blocker to side-step and take Hightower out, freeing the back for a nice little gain. If Hightower had waited near the line, he would've forced the back to either run past the blocker, to where Hightower was waiting in good position or else stack the play up by advancing behind the slow lineman.
Later, he miscalculated James Davis' speed and set the wrong pursuit angle, allowing the back to spring free for a big gain (although the gain was negated because Clemson's tight end pushed McClain in the back to spring Davis).
Chavis Williams usually came in for Hightower on obvious pass downs and looked strong as a pass-rusher. He showcased a nice change-of-direction that allows him to run wide around the tackle and then cut in on the quarterback quickly, when it looks as if he has run himself out of the play. That's what got him his sack.
Eryk Anders is no speedster, but he is physical, and was an active and involved presence when the second-team defense got in late. Charlie Higginbotham saw action at the same time, and sacked Cullen Harper with a very nicely-timed blitz. Harper never had a chance.
We played with five defensive backs, Arenas on the slot receiver and Jackson and M. Johnson on the wide receivers, with two safeties back deep, for most of the game.
R. Johnson flashed his all-SEC bona fides on a couple of tackles, but he also dropped three interception chances, two of which he really should've hauled in. To top it off, Rashad misjudged Jacoby Ford's burst and set the wrong angle on a first-half play that allowed the Clemson speedster to get free for a 40+ yard gain.
On the play, Javier Arenas blitzed - very nicely-timed, by the way, but Harper dumped it quickly to the crossing Ford. Arenas' blitz left Kareem Jackson and Brandon Fanney on two wideouts on the left, and Fanney took Ford, so you can imagine how that turned out. (Remember seeing Fanney in that replay?)
I'm still officially in waiting-to-be-convinced mode on Marquis Johnson after last year's Greg Carr debacle - Marquis didn't exactly look like Superman on ">The Scrimmage Play
, either - but Johnson showed some signs of getting the job done. Not only did he close the deal on a gift pick, as R. Johnson twice failed to do, but he got in on several tackles, including one nice open-field solo takedown of James Davis.
I didn't see much of Justin Woodall - one thing the DVR doesn't help much on is watching safeties, who tend to be off-screen - but his fourth-quarter one-handed takedown of a leaping Clemson receiver, from which the receiver did not quickly rise, was the kind of thing you hire 227-pound safeties for.
Woodall needs to play well, because Barron looked very active and aggressive during his brief time on defense.
Kareem Jackson was victimized by a phantom pass interference call for basically defending himself against being ravaged by Aaron Kelly, but otherwise turned in his normal solid game against both the pass and the run.
The 96-yard kickoff return was our first big special teams giveaway in a couple of years. Until I see it happen again, I'm going to call that One Of Those Things and not worry about it too much.
C.J. Spiller is one of the most dangerous kickoff returners around. We had guys all around him, and he broke a tackle and caromed off it through a tiny crack in our coverage. I don't think it signals any sort of weakness in our kickoff coverage. It Just Happened.
Otherwise, Mark Barron and Eryk Anders delivered meaty shots on kickoff returns. Barron was particularly active on kickoff and punt coverage, and Roy Upchurch disrupted some plans even though he didn't make a tackle.
Our own dangerous guy never broke one, but you could sure see it waiting to happen. It will.
Tiffin looked great, of course. One barely-missed 52-yarder and four made.
Unfortunately, we'll have to wait til next week if we're going to see the hoped-for improvement from P.J. Fitzgerald.