12 October 2010
What happened this week is pretty simple: we ran into a buzzsaw. Stephen Garcia had the game of his life, by a very wide margin, throwing accurately downfield under pressure time and time again. With the talent that surrounds him, South Carolina is a very difficult team to beat with Garcia playing like that.
It was a difficult situation: on the road, against the third straight very tough opponent, and the week after a focused effort against our biggest rival (for right now). Add an on-fire Garcia to that, and Bama had to play its very best game to win. That didn't happen, although we didn't play anywhere near as terribly as you might think if you got your news off of Bama-football-related message boards.
Courtney Upshaw must have tweaked his ankle either during practice last week or early in the game. He did not have much of an impact on the game, and that was the biggest difference between the D against Florida and the D against South Carolina.
But don't put me in the chorus of complaints about the defense. SCU got 35 points primarily because they played damned well, not because our D played poorly. Marcell Dareus went a long way toward making up for Upshaw's ineffectiveness, and many if not most of Garcia's completions were to guys who were tightly covered.
We have played as tough a schedule as anybody in college football, and we are still 5th in the nation in scoring defense and 12th in the nation in turnovers gained. That may not be as good as the 2009 D, but it will win you a lot of games.
South Carolina obviously had great success with throwing it up in the air to tightly-recovered receivers, particularly Alshon Jeffery, and counting on their guys to come down with the ball. Of course it helped that the passes were mostly spot-on perfect, but still, the main factor was that they gave their receivers a chance to go up in the air and get to the ball first.
Alabama obviously doesn't play that way. McElroy only lets it go when he sees an open man.
Hard to blame us for that philosophy. We play hard-nosed, physical football and win based on D and minimizing offensive mistakes. Last I checked we usually win more than we lose. Still, on Saturday we saw the benefits of doing it a different way, if we were watching.
99% of the time you can look a box score over without knowing the score and you will quickly know who won. Not so easy this time. We had:
- more yards
- less turnovers
- less penalty yards
- more plays
- more first downs
- less points
You do see the missed kicks in the box score, but that only accounted for four points, so the mystery persists. But if you keep looking, you'll find the golden egg: each team had four red-zone trips, and Bama's trips led to 10 points, while SCU's led to 28. That's an 18-point gap in a 14-point win; the Gamecocks won this game in the red zone, with offense and defense.
Greg McElroy threw well, but obviously took multiple sacks when he had a chance to get rid of the ball. I'd say that, out of the seven sacks, he only got snowed without a good chance to dump it maybe twice.
That's a bad thing for a fifth-year senior. Overall, I think Greg might be slightly improved over '09, but not as much as the insiders were saying during summer drills. I guess that's my fault for paying attention to summer-drill talk. Never a good idea.
Hard to blame him for the fumble, where the rusher made a swift, aggressive and accurate move to put a big hit on McElroy's throwing wrist. Unless you remember that he has now fumbled three times in the last three games.
But somewhere, somehow, things aren't working out for our offense in SEC play the way I had hoped. And since I believe that our running backs, our wideouts, and our offensive line are all improved over '09, that puts it either on McElroy or on Jim McElwain.
Without fully exonerating the quarterback, I am inclined to start with the latter. While McElwain apparently can gameplan a pretty good running game, our wideouts just don't get open downfield the way you see the wideouts from teams like Auburn and Arkansas, teams who have coaches who are considered top offensive minds, get open.
This is not a new thing, either, and I don't think it's that our receivers are not good athletes. Curt Cignetti might be involved with this problem as well. One way or the other, I don't feel that our passing attack is as well-coached as our rushing attack or our D. It shows up when we fall way behind early and have to go to the air.
Why don't we get us one of them there top offensive minds? It's not a question of money. Wouldn't guys love to be able to work with our athletes?
Or is it Nick Saban's rep for reigning in the offensive gameplan? Nobody wants to be forced to go into a shell whenever you have a two-TD lead in the 3rd quarter.
Speaking of falling way behind early: this is getting old. Utah still holds the crown for kicking our butts in the first quarter the worst, but there are several medals to give out.
I already knew about this tendency last week, when I said Saban is clearly the top coach in college football today. He still is, but he has a weakness here and there.
But back to McElwain. I'm not with the whiners who think we needed to run more. I don't like our route-running schemes, but I like the play balance. In this game, the pass was working better than the run, plus we were way behind most of the game and needed to make the game longer by conserving clock, i.e., we needed to pass.
Generally, the idea of play-calling in football is not to always go to your strength. It's almost always best if you can fool the other side, whether you're going to your strength or not. We fool the other side a fair bit, and I'd rather have that than more runs.
But I am with the whiners who don't understand why we have gone away from throwing up-top. Lots of screens, lots of short outs, very few downfield shots to wideouts. I don't get that. The area 10-15 yards downfield is one of the easiest places to get somebody open; let's go there more, and into the backfield less.
And make good and sure you air it out at least a couple of times a game to loosen the D, if for no other reason. That has been key to the success of our run game in the past in my humble but always correct opinion. Is it a coincidence that our rushing attack has gone from 227 yards to 170 yards to 36 yards the last three weeks as we have stopped going downfield? I think probably not.
Speaking of play-calling . . . what the heck was that on the fake field goal? I've got nothing in principle against going for the fake, but throwing a flat pass to a reserve linebacker on 4th and 10? Folks, that will only work if the other team totally buys the fake, and there is no way in Hades they sell out for the block when we're lining up a 45-yarder trailing by seven in the fourth. That was an awful play call, and it didn't matter that Stinson dropped the pass, because he had no chance.
If you're going to go for it, have in mind getting enough yards for the first down.
The biggest play of the game came with about 1:00 left in the first quarter. South Carolina led 7-3 and had a 4th and 2 on the UA 33. Garcia rolled left, and was hemmed in and trapped behind the line, when veteran all-star safety Mark Barron decided to make a beeline for the QB instead of circling his way in to keep the outside contain. Garcia only had one direction to go, and that was to duck back and then spin and go to the left. With nobody else in position to contain, Barron's bonehead play left that route wide open for an easy first down.
Garcia hooked up with Jefferey for an easy 26-yard TD pass on the next play. But for the 4th and 2 conversion, this game could've gone very differently. Barron realized what he had done and played like a man possessed the rest of the game, but he couldn't get that play back.
I said last week this was a big trap game. I was plenty worried before the game started, but I'd be lying if I said I thought Garcia was going to play like that. I've seen most of his big games, and I've never seen that Stephen Garcia.
Sometimes, folks, it's just not meant to be.
Around College Football
Well . . . the college football scene becomes slightly less interesting when Alabama is not #1. But speaking of Alabama not being #1, I thought #8 was kind of a long tumble based on a road loss in the third straight game against a top team.
No other top ten team has had to run that kind of gauntlet, nowhere near. Did the pollsters forget that Alabama just housed Florida last week and beat Arkansas on the road the week before that? Did they forget we've won 19 of the last 20 even after this week's game?
Alabama's still the favorite at a neutral site against anybody who is not in the top 3, I'll guarantee you that. Oklahoma ahead of us after their tight games against Utah St., Cincinnatti, and Air Force? TCU? Give me a break.
Denard ("Tecmo Bowl stat line") Robinson went against a semi-real defense for the first time. But this time his stat line was more like your little brother the day after he got his Nintendo for Christmas, and you're not going easy on him.
The Penn St. win is looking less impressive as the season winds on. But at least we got ‘em while they were ranked, and really, you can't blame us for scheduling ‘em. They looked tough at the time.
If you don't believe in the old adage, "I'd rather be lucky than good," watch a few LSU games. That's undefeated LSU.
A dear old friend who happens to be a Tennessee Volunteer fan - well, OK, maybe not so dear - e-mailed me right after the Bama game Saturday. (How nice of him, I hadn't heard from him in a year.)
His e-mail was titled "Oops," and the text read, in its entirety, "What happened?" I wrote back, saying "I'll tell you what happened, Tennessee got trucked by a 1-4 team, that's what happened. Any more questions?"
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