22 September 2009
How bad is North Texas? That's the question of the week, because what we know right now is that either North Texas is really really bad, or else Bama is really really good.
The final score, 53-7, sounds like a beatdown, but it actually wasn't that close. At least as long as the Bama starters were in the game, this was total domination of a sort that Bama has not exercised in quite a while, possibly since the Bear Bryant days. Both our offense and our defense did whatever the heck they wanted to whenever they felt like it.
Let's break it down.
With The Tune-Ups Over
Bama is obviously very well tuned-up. We have a couple of nicks and bruises, but we are probably healthier than average.
Its scary to think we could keep improving through the year. If we do, Florida had better watch the heck out, they just might get trucked in Atlanta. Really, all we need to do is keep playing at this level.
The biggest remaining question mark is
Greg McElroy's Health
McElroy is a big, strong guy, and has not shown any kind of tendency to get hurt. So that's not why this is a big question mark.
It's a big question mark because we would be hurting if he went down. Star Jackson showed promise during some significant field time Saturday, but he is nowhere near McElroy's level, and an offense only goes where its quarterback takes it.
Speaking of McElroy's level, the only thing that stops me from saying McElroy is our best QB since at least Walter Lewis is the level of competition we have been playing against. I can say with some level of confidence that neither Mike Shula, Gary Hollingsworth, David Smith, Freddy Kitchens, Andrew Zow, Tyler Watts, Brodie Croyle, John Parker Wilson, or any other post-Bryant Bama quarterback has lit up the NTSUs and FIUs of the world the way Greg has done the last two Saturdays - but a QB isn't judged by his performance against wannabe teams.
I won't proclaim McElroy's greatness - even though I'd like to, and right now - until I see it happen against the thick of our schedule. But so far McElroy has looked very, very good. Way better than John Parker Wilson last year, and maybe the difference between a very good team and a national champ. Even without having teed it up against LSU, etc., I'm ready to say right now that the fears we would take a dive at QB after losing a three-year starter are officially history.
While our D has obviously looked very good, as the stats show - 3rd in the nation in Total D, 2nd in rushing D - to tell the truth they haven't been quite what I was hoping for. I was hoping for an all-time great D, but so far they look to be at about the same level as last year's D.
It's true that we are improved in some areas. Our pass rush has picked up a notch, and we are definitely hitting harder (which is pretty impressive because we rung a few bells last year). But there have been too many big plays, more than we gave up last year.
Saban is known for his adjustments, though, and giving up big plays is the kind of thing that can sometimes be ironed out in practice. There's still a chance for this group to hit that legendary level I have been hoping for, but there's work yet to do.
Enough generalities. Let's look at the game.
Game of Halves
The first half was a total blast. 352 yards of total offense, which is an amazing amount for a ball-control team. (In fact, you won't see many teams who average 515 yards per game, as we have done, but still maintain a healthy time of possession advantage.)
The second half was a bit of a yawner.
The North Texas Defense
In case you haven't picked up on it yet, I'm really enthusiastic about our offensive performance from Saturday. But let's plug in the Downer-tron here for a minute: NTSU's D appears to be very bad.
Or maybe it's just a D that is fine-tuned for Sun Belt competition. But they were seriously not up to the task that was put before them on Saturday. Those guys are about as non-physical as you'll see a Division One defense these days. Pretty much their only prayer of tackling Ingram and Richardson was to grab an ankle. They had no noticeable pass rush and our wideouts were running free all day.
So keep this in the back of your mind when you see me raving about our offense.
Whatever the strength of the NTU D may or may not be, they were overmatched in the trenches. Especially early on, there tended to be a couple of North Texas players blocked to the ground on just about every play. Runs up the middle tended to create wide-open lanes with crimson walls on both sides.
McElroy was never in particular trouble, and frequently had all day, as on, for example, the long TD strike to Maze (which was an absolutely fabulous throw, over the catchable shoulder and right in there). Even the first-play fumble wasn't really a bad play by Bama. Carpenter made the rusher take the great circle route to get to McElroy, and it took him a while, so it wasn't really a bad play by Carpenter, and it also wasn't a bad play by McElroy, who never saw the guy coming from directly behind him. Plays like that happen to the best of teams.
Vlachos was noticeably active, although he did miss a block or two and got nailed for holding. Barrett Jones has looked very good to me. He's got a job nailed down for a few years.
Ingram and Richardson
Man oh man, are these guys fun to watch. And especially against an over-matched team like NTU. It's nice to have a pair of running backs who match up well, strength-wise, against the opposing team's defensive line.
I was surprised to see Richardson in the game so early. I take that as a sign that he is going to be our go-to guy pretty soon.
Of course, Ingram is certain to continue to get significant touches. He was pretty good last year, and has obviously upped his game in some important areas, namely vision, decisiveness, and receiving. The skills he has shown getting yardage after short receptions guarantee he will have an important role in the offense no matter how good Richardson turns out.
And Richardson? How good is he? Of course it would be foolish to forget who his playing time has come against, so I'm not going to make the extravagant statements I might otherwise be tempted to make. Like, for example, "best running back in the country."
Seriously, I'm not downing Jahvid Best, who is obviously an outstanding back, but I'm not sure if he's better than Richardson or Ingram.
Interesting choice to go with Jackson, when McElroy has so very little experience running a two-minute offense in a game. It makes me think the coaches are comfortable with Greg's grasp of the two-minute drill, experience or not. As poised as he has looked in other aspects of the game, it shouldn't surprise anyone if he is all that and a bag of chips in the last two minutes as well.
Star Jackson and Terry Grant
Greg McElroy and Mark Ingram/Trent Richardson
Two very different things.
We scored at will with the first team in, but did not have nearly the same success when the subs entered, particularly late in the game with a second-string offensive line.
Jackson showed promise and an accurate arm - but it's a good thing his throws were accurate, because he was consistently throwing to guys who were not open. It looks as if the game is still a bit fast-paced for him, and that's against North Texas.
Which makes it a very good thing that he got this action, and in fact he started looking a bit more comfortable back there as the game went on. Hopefully he will get some more minutes over the next couple of games. It's scary to have an awesome QB like McElroy at first string and a freshman who is not quite ready for prime time at second string. One play could change the complexion of our season in a big hurry.
For a 6'2" 98-pound guy starting in his first game ever and going against a very scary defense, Nathan Tune was a pretty cool customer. We made it a little bit easy on him by not going all-out on the pass rush - of which more below - but he never looked scared, something that can't necessarily be said of the QBs who went up against us the first two games.
You have to figure that NTU coach Todd Dodge is pretty good with quarterbacks. Seeing Tune perform relatively well in an incredibly adverse situation is impressive, and when you realize that this is the guy who developed Chase Daniel and, umm, Greg McElroy in high school, you know he must know his way around a passing pocket.
If he doesn't make it as a head coach, count on seeing him as the OC or quarterback coach at a top program.
Interestingly, although you'd figure Bama would tee off against the young QB, they didn't, not at all. Very few blitzes and even parts of the 3- and 4-man rushes we were sending most of the game were coming on delays.
There are a couple of ways of looking at that. First, I think Saban recognized early on that NTU was going with a short drop/quick release gameplan to take the heat off of Dodge. You counter that with a minimal rush and a bunch of people playing tight coverage to take away the short pass.
Second, though, there's really no need to pull out all the stops against a team that just can't hang. Why not change things up, since they undoubtedly gameplanned against the pass rush we had showcased in the first two games?
Another plus to changing things up: now Bobby Petrino, one of the top offensive minds in the game, doesn't quite know what to expect next week. And if he keys his O against the kind of conservative pass rush he saw last week, he might not be ready when we throw the kitchen sink at Mallet.
Which we will.
Sorry, I hope nobody gets too upset that I don't go into a lot of detail about how third-string freshman played with five minutes left in the 4th quarter. While I make it a point not to miss a single Alabama play EVER if I can help it, the tail end of a blowout like this is pretty doggoned boring. You can't even really get a good look at the youngsters you're curious about, because the 4th quarter of a blowout isn't quite the same thing as real football. The incentives aren't the same.
Nevertheless, it was difficult not to notice the play of Chris Jordan. Jordan led the team in tackles, and most were of the physical variety. It has been obvious since the first scrimmage that Jordan came back from the off-season with the body of a linebacker, but it looks like he's well on his way to having the mind of an SEC linebacker as well.
Nico Johnson also looked quite good - for a true freshman. But I'd have to say that Jordan looked better.
Sigh. Well, the worst is we can just let 'em always start on the 40. We might actually be good enough to get away with it.
So far as I could tell from watching TV, the clip that brought their long return back had no effect on the play.
Tiffin put three in a row deep into the end zone. That was good to see, wind or not.
But I was surprised to only see NTU coming out from 8 yards deep once and taking the touchback the other two times. I tell you what, if I was Todd Dodge coaching against Alabama, we are bringing it out every time, I don't care if the dude has to lean over the back stripe to haul it in.
By the way, the biggest difference between last year's kickoff coverage and this year's is Leigh Tiffin. If Tiffin hadn't always been in the right place last year - even getting run over, he would slow their returner down enough that somebody else could tackle him - we give up another five TD returns. This year he keeps showing up off to the side of the hole the guy runs through
Which is to say, our kickoff coverage has been downright awful for two years, but last year we were lucky.
One of these days this guy is going to learn Saban's scheme and appear in our defensive backfield. I am looking forward to that. I know we have fabulous talent back there already, but I'm here to say that Rod Woodson will get on the field once he is ready.
Tiffin's Extra Points
Before Saturday, Tiffin had hit 88 of his last 89 extra points.
Have to tip my hat to the zebras, who nailed a couple of very difficult calls that looked to me, live, as if they went the other way.
Specifically, I'm talking about the game-opening McElroy fumble and the play when Dre Kirkpatrick looked like he clipped NTU's gunner on a punt return but actually just shadowed the guy and then dove across his back without touching him. I could sworn #1 was a pass and #2 was a clip, but I was wrong and the refs were right both times.
End of This Column?
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