While it's always easy to complain from the couch, our crack team of analytical sofa spuds found less reason to whine this week than usual. Maybe Bama wasn't quite as impressive against the Hilltoppers as against Clemson - and really, is it possible to be truly impressive against a team called the Hilltoppers? - but for the first time the downfield passing game functioned and functioned well, while the team continued the good play that it has shown consistently in pretty much every other facet of the game.
Yes, Western Kentucky is a Division I-A (you won't hear me saying "Bowl Subdivision" any time soon) school, but this is it's first year to be such, and as things worked out, this was little more than a glorified scrimmage. That's OK, because it was a good and productive scrimmage, and in fact one where, so far as I know, nobody got hurt.
I could just say 559 total yards, almost exactly balanced between passing and rushing, and 30 first downs. Most of the story would be told, without the need for all those icky details that take so much time to write.
But that's not what they're paying me The Big Bux for, so I'll blather on a bit.
One noteable note to blather about on offense was the play-calling. I and others suggested last week that the reason we kept throwing against Tulane, even when it wasn't working, was because we wanted to work the kinks out of the passing game before hitting the SEC schedule.
That was probably true in this game, as well. There were several times when we ripped off 5, 6, or 7 yards on first down and were in an obvious position to power-run against the outmanned 'Toppers for the next first, but went to the air instead.
Doing that a time or two is just smart play-calling to keep your opponent off-balance. Doing it repeatedly can only be working the kinks out of the passing game. Happily, at least some of those kinks appear to be working out.
John Parker Wilson - I only call him Ole Three Names after bad weeks - is one of the most consistent athletes you'll ever see. He will surprise you every week - consistently.
This week, after connecting with only one downfield strike out of numerous attempts during the first two games, Wilson completed six passes of over fifteen yards, several of them right on the money. He also threw a couple of hideous balls straight to Western Kentucky defenders, one of which was intercepted, but you can deal with a turnover here and there when the offense is charging up and down the field like crimson water buffaloes on high-grade meth.
Which is, apparently, what they do when the passing offense is working. At least against Hilltoppers.
It's absurd to try to predict this guy, other than the "he'll surprise you again" prediction, but while Wilson's overall performance this year has been none too hot, we've seen signs for optimism. Absent so far has been the shellshocked mode that popped up too frequently in 2007, nor have we seen any second-half disappearances.
As I have said - at least most of the time - give us Wilson on top of his mental game, and we'll accept the physical limitations and still fare well in this league. Well, foolishly enough, I'm saying it again here.
Also notable was some very nifty play in relief from Greg McElroy, who wasted no time in demonstrating to Wilson the positives of stepping forward in the pocket to buy time. However, I'm going to resist the temptation to use McElroy's good play as another argument against Wilson - it was late in the game against a beaten-down team, and not just any ole beaten-down team, either, but beaten-down Hilltoppers. In other words, it was comforting, but it didn't mean much.
Even though Glenn Coffee's 51-yard second-quarter jaunt was the longest of his career, and even though Coffee continues to show an ability to finish runs he has not exhibited in the past, I'm even more impressed with Mark Ingram. Ingram has a change of direction and elusiveness that is rare in a back with his power, and although he hasn't had an opportunity to showcase foot-race speed yet, he obviously has a very nice burst.
I generally like the idea of Ingram and Coffee keeping each other fresh, but I would like to see Ingram get a few more carries.
If there was a down note for the Tide Saturday night, it was that Roy Upchurch appeared somewhat unfocused. Perhaps that's understandable given that he made his first appearance in the third quarter of a blowout, against Hilltoppers no less, but #5 fumbled, dropped a beautifully-set-up and beautifully-thrown screen pass, and twice launched himself ineffectually at the feet of blitzers. Normally, Upchurch is sure-handed and a very effective pass blocker.
Another nice note: Demetrius Goode showed that he deserves to be fifth string, but he also showed that he is about as good a fifth-string tailback as you could hope for. Western Kentucky could only have hoped to have someone as good.
I took the seven completions to tight ends in the first half of the Clemson game as a possible sign of the Apocalypse, but reality appears to be setting in. There have only been six more tight end completions in the five halves since.
But don't give up on the Apocalypse yet. It was high time for our wideouts to shine, so focusing on them instead of tight ends against Western Kentucky may have merely been a sign of the working out of kinks alluded to above.
As I mentioned in my Saturday night game story, Alabama's wide receiving unit was only averaging 48.0 yards per game coming into the fray. For those of you lacking a frame of reference for such things, just take it from me: that's terrible.
Saturday night, wideouts jammed for 232 yards. That's excellent. Excellent > terrible, so I'm officially calling that improved.
Julio Jones outmanned a Hilltopper DB who attempted to tackle him after catching a short out, turning it into his second Tide TD. Marquis Maze made yet another great catch. Mike McCoy continues to show that he found out which direction downfield is during the offseason - last year he averaged an abysmal 7.4 yards per reception, but this year McCoy is clocking in at a cool 15.0 per, which is very nice, especially by comparison. Earl Alexander also hit the 50-yard mark, and Will Oakley, in his first action of the year, caught his first pass of the year, as did Nikita Stover.
I think we have already shown that we have at least six guys ready to form a five-man unit that can manhandle most teams (in other words, that we can handle at least one injury and still field a strong line). We showed it again in the first half, completely dominating the line of scrimmage against the Hilltoppers, despite the absence of Marlon Davis.
Probably the most interesting aspect of the game was the fact that John Michael Boswell went in at the end of the first half, played right tackle for the rest of the game, and looked pretty decent doing so. I don't think Boswell is ready to take Drew Davis' job away from him, but it's not out of the question that he could do so by the end of the season.
Boswell was pretty much Davis' equal at pass protection (i.e., he got beaten at least once by a speed-rusher) but shows some signs that he might have a quicker lateral step and thus a better ability to handle those speed-rushers once he gets his sea legs under him. It will take a little work for the kid to catch up to Davis on run-blocking, but his run-blocking was adequate, and really, I think it's the pass-blocking at right tackle that has been a bigger concern for the last few millenia.
Finally, I know the official watchword is "Saban Saban Saban, oh Lord Saban who doeth no wrong," but was it really necessary to blow the redshirts for both Tyler Love AND Barret Jones in the 4th quarter of a blow-out? Color me skeptical on that one.
Even if we are pretty sure they will play later and maybe need the time, how valuable is the practice you get in 4th-quarter blowout time against Hilltoppers, anyway? Wouldn't it be better to save them for a game that counts, just in case we wind up getting a chance to keep the redshirt? Redshirts tend to be more valuable for offensive linemen than for folks at other positions.
Nevertheless, it was a pleasure to watch 'em continue to dominate in the fourth quarter, even if it was against who it was against.
While it's true we got precious little in the way of statistical production from the defensive line, what can you expect from a team that majors in dinking and dunking and in reverses and misdirection end runs? It's tribute enough to our DL that Western Kentucky barely even tried to run it up the middle.
When they did try, they got discouraged. One third-quarter play in particular showed just what a force of nature that new defensive mountain I mean tackle is:
Two Hilltopper offensive linemen double-teamed Cody, but he still pushed into the backfield. The quarterback faked a handoff to the tailback, who led and made it a triple-team on Cody. The QB followed the tailback's blocking . . . only to find that the tailback and one of the offensive linemen, the one who had gotten in front of Cody (the other one was to the side), were falling over backward. Just as they were all leaning back, the QB hit the pile. Cody covered the two guys in front of him with his big left arm, shoved it down with an arm-wrestling move, and the tailback and lineman flopped over backward, with Cody landing on top of both while the poor quarterback flopped to the side, landing on his rear.
Awesome. Like watching a volcano erupt, or a hundred-foot tsunami sweep across the Pacific. One of nature's most awesome forces: Terrence Cody.
ED: Here it is, with a tip o' the hat to Roll Bama Roll.
One other thing I noticed: Bobby Greenwood got pretty good pressure several times. He may not be giving his starting job over to Washington quite as quickly as I expected.
Rolando McClain set the tone on the first play from scrimmage, when he stepped through a gap and caught that little-bitty Hilltopper tailback leaning the wrong way a yard or two behind the line. McClain proceeded to lead the dance, and by the time the whistles convinced him to let go, he had the little feller a good 20 yards behind the line.
It wasn't a big night for linebacker stats, as the Western Kentucky attack was designed more to test our defensive backs on the corners. Given the nature of their attack, Bama ran the nickel virtually all night long, which meant that Cory Reamer scarcely saw the field.
A guy who saw the field a good bit more, but unfortunately did not get involved in many plays, was Don'ta Hightower. Based on the little we saw of Prince Hall Saturday night, that kind of play will not keep Don'ta on the field.
Prince was only out there for two plays, but on the second of those plays he stepped into the gap and delivered a solid shot to a Hilltopper running back for a solo tackle at the line of scrimmage. It was good to see.
Finally, Courtney Upshaw may not quite have the full defense down pat, but physically he has to be ready to at least challenge Chavis Williams for the designated occasional blitzing linebacker position. On one play, Upshaw power-rushed to the inside, then showcased an athletic outside spin move that put him, suddenly, right in the quarterback's face. Look for more Upshaw playing time soon - perhaps much more.
It was a coming-out party for Justin Woodall. I've been telling you guys he was right on the verge of making things happen, and Saturday night he crossed that verge. Yes, it was against Hilltoppers, of course, but I really think Woodall took a step forward that he won't give up.
Not only did he force a fumble, not only did he grab a nice deflection-drill pick - worthless, unfortunately, since it was on fourth down - but his five tackles were mostly behind or near the line of scrimmage, and not so much downfield. Even more notably, Woodall laid some serious wood Saturday night. It was the kind of hitting you expect from a big, fast guy like that.
On the downside, Rashad Johnson was involved in a bad way in the other team's biggest offensive play for the third straight week. This week, on the Hilltoppers' 30-yard TD play, Rashad ran the tight end down around the 15-yard-line, and then, inexplicably, instead of taking another couple of steps to get in front of the slower opponent and irrevocably stop him around the 10, Rashad pushed him from behind. That did nothing but accelerate the dude, who unfortunately scored the only touchdown our defense has given up this year.
Of course, Rashad also made several authoritative tackles and a very nifty pass break-up on a third and short play. I'm ready for him to get over this big-play surrendering streak, but I actually have confidence that he is aware, embarrassed, and is going to use this as a springboard to finish the season the way we have been expecting him to play all along. He has both the ability and the technique.
Kareem Jackson played the kind of game you expect from a top cornerback, i.e., mostly invisible, and when he was visible it was making a play. Javier Arenas tackled solidly, if his coverage was slightly loose, and Marquis Johnson is looking more confident out there all the time.
OK, now I am officially worried about the kickoff coverage. Can we give Ron Middleton a fancy title, another $50K/year, and get him back down here now? Surely he knows better than to lolly-gag around at some place like DUKE while OUR kickoff coverage is falling apart!
And yeah, I know we need Bobby Williams for his recruiting connections, but I'm starting to grow some skepticism about his special-team coaching.
There was one good thing about the kickoff coverage, though: Courtney Upshaw. Courtney made most of the kickoff tackles on the night, and brother that's a lot of tackles. A couple of those hits made the returners say ouch, too.
Leigh Tiffin didn't have a terrible night, scoring 11 points on 2-3 field goals and 5-5 extra points, but it was pretty bad. His missed field goal was way ugly, one of the extra points barely made it through, he had two short kick-offs, and once again Leigh got real up close and personal with the ground after trying to make a tackle. At least he kept his health.
P.J. Fitzgerald did not make a single punt of less than 65 yards - or more than 10 for that matter. That's because Alabama - eh eh - did . . . not . . . punt. You gotta like that.
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