A few initial impressions after the Kentucky game:
Julio Jones... I just really don't know what to make of him. I really don't think he's 100% right now, and for much of the day yesterday Trevard Lindley got the best of him. That's no shame because Lindley is the league's best corner and a future first round draft pick, but it would be nicer to get Julio more involved in the game. We're doing just fine without him being a major producer, but it's hard to believe that through five games he has a mere nine catches on the year. Against Arkansas we really didn't get him involved that much, but I saw eight passes go his way yesterday, and it netted two catches for 13 yards. Julio's presence makes our offense much better simply because it allows us to get other players consistently isolated, but it would still be very nice to get some more production out of Julio.
Colin Peek finally put together a big game yesterday. He has been plagued by the drops for most of the season -- at least four by my count -- but he emerged yesterday as a big weapon. Hopefully he keeps producing like that.
- From the outset, looking at the entire picture, the Tide simply did not play very well against Kentucky. Of course you should never complain too much any time you can go on the road in conference play and get an 18-point victory, but by the same token you shouldn't be so blinded by the scoreboard to not realize that we played poorly and that, based purely on the performances of the two teams, that this game should have been a lot closer.
- Without doubt, Kentucky was their own worst enemy in this game. They had five personal foul penalties, a slew of dropped passes to open receivers, several incredibly bone-headed throws by Hartline (many of which resulted in interceptions), and that is not counting the last-second fumble to end the first half that resulted in a Courtney Upshaw touchdown. Truth be told, Kentucky beat themselves in this game more than anything else. The lopsided margin of victory was really the result of Alabama just allowing Kentucky to keep shooting themselves in the foot.
- Offensively, our strategy in the beginning of the game really made very little sense. Kentucky never even remotely stopped our running game, but we decided to stop it ourselves by airing the football out. And making matters even more head-scratching was that we kept throwing deep, instead of trying to establish the short and intermediate passing game. And that strategy was even more perplexing given how Nick Saban talked after the game about how the strong winds made throwing the football so difficult early. I really just never understood what we were trying to do offensively, nor did anyone else, and our offensive play-calling was perhaps the most suspect it has been since McElwain arrived.
- And speaking of the running game, I worried coming in that Kentucky would be able to shut us down, but our guys really answered the bell. Kentucky never really stopped us in the running game, and Mark Ingram and Roy Upchurch combined to run for 153 yards on only 24 carries. Trent Richardson's stat line doesn't look very good because he got the workhorse duty in the fourth quarter trying to run out the clock, but again in meaningful situations Kentucky never really stopped us. The problem was, really, that we stopped ourselves by simply choosing not to run the football.
- The offensive line did a very good job in pass protection. As I said in the preview, Kentucky could really get after the quarterback, and we largely neutralized them at the point of attack. McElroy was hit several times -- which is honestly a given for any team these days really wanting to throw the football a lot -- and he is clearly helping the offensive line out by not holding onto the ball too long, but even so our guys up front did a fine job. McElroy threw 26 passes yesterday, and was sacked only once. Moreover, thanks to McElroy's pocket presence, he limited that sack to only a two yard loss. Truth be told, protecting the passer is a joint effort between quarterback himself and the offensive line, but I do think it's clear at this point that McElroy and the newly revamped offensive line do a better job of it than John Parker Wilson and the group we had a year ago.
- Good news on injuries... there were none. I did see Barrett Jones gimpy at one point, but he never left the game and looked to be okay. Few things in football are more precious than staying healthy.
- The Wildcat... didn't see it a single time all day, to my knowledge. I think it's clear now that our offense uses it as a weapon -- and forces the opposing defense to prepare for it -- but for the most part we really do not see it as an integral part of our offense like many other teams do.
Earl Alexander came up with a huge catch on the touchdown drive late in the second quarter, and the redshirt junior continues to make good things happen when he can actually get in the game. The problem is he's buried on the depth chart by Julio Jones and Mike McCoy, and he doesn't get very many balls thrown in his direction.
Notice something eerily similar on that touchdown pass to Darius Hanks? It was the exact same play call that we won the 2007 Arkansas game with, except this time it was Hanks in place of Matt Caddell, and Julio Jones in place of Keith Brown.
Greg McElroy, in some ways, had his worst day of the year yesterday afternoon. Just like he did against Virginia Tech, he rallied strong after a slow start, but it wasn't his best day. Nevertheless, I'm not complaining a bit. The SEC has some tough pass defenses, and Kentucky may be the best one of them all, and even against them McElroy had a solid day throwing the football and completely avoided all big, negative plays. As a general matter, you can really ask for little more out of your signal caller.
Moving to the defensive side of the ball, things weren't so pretty. Kentucky has an offense that will almost certainly finish near the bottom of the SEC in most statistical categories, and they scored 20 points against us. Making matters worse, we never really stopped them, and they should have scored more. Again, we never really stopped them, they only stopped themselves. Had Kentucky not been so hell bent on shooting themselves in the foot, they could have legitimately scored 30+ points.
Kentucky effectively had 11 possessions yesterday. Of those 11, they scored on four of them, four of them resulted in turnovers, two of them stalled out with four dropped passes / penalties, and the Tide forced all of one legitimate stop. In other words, Kentucky had 11 possessions yesterday, and on 10 of them they either scored points or stopped themselves with their own incompetence.
Obviously the turnovers were the biggest difference-maker defensively, and while it's nice to see we got the four turnovers, I'm afraid to say that we didn't necessarily do that much to force those turnovers. The three interceptions by Kentucky were the result of two unbelievably stupid throws by Hartline, and a pass that bounced off the UK receiver's face mask (i.e. a ball that should have been caught). The fumble was a heads-up play by McClain, but again Cobb was really not securing the ball properly. The point is that a lack of turnovers has been a problem to date, and while it was nice to see us generate four turnovers against Kentucky, I'm afraid they were generally of the bone-headed variety that we cannot count on future opponents to give us.
Without doubt, the single biggest play of the game was the Rolando McClain strip and subsequent Courtney Upshaw fumble return for a touchdown. That single play absolutely changed the game, and it would have been a very different contest had it not occurred. If we don't get that then we go to halftime leading 14-6 with Kentucky getting the ball to start the second half. After that play, victory was never in serious jeopardy.
The biggest thing that Kentucky did to us defensively was win the battle in the trenches. They didn't mow us over, but they did neutralize our defensive line. We could not get pressure on the quarterback, nor could we get penetration into the backfield in the running game. By and large, they whipped us up front, plain and simple.
Kentucky had a good bit of success running the football, but notice how they did it. They didn't pound the ball in the A-gap like many choose to do, they instead ran things a bit wider in the B-gap and outside the tackles. It placed a greater premium on the lateral quickness of our defensive linemen than usual, and likewise with the linebacker corps. And again, we really didn't respond. They racked up over 130 yards rushing, and we struggled to stop it. Expect other teams to do many of the same things Kentucky did.
So, to replace Hightower, we went with Reamer in the middle, Anders at Sam, and Upshaw at Jack. Chris Jordan saw some time, but Nico Johnson only played on special teams. And I'm really not sure how well things worked. Reamer wasn't really the problem -- as much as he will probably get blamed for it -- but Upshaw was a bit suspect at times in run support. He didn't play the run as well from the Jack linebacker position as Anders did in the first four games, and that hurt. Moreover, things just generally looked out of sync at times. Saban has said in the past that he generally doesn't like re-shuffling a lot of players, and there is a reason for that. Perhaps we'll see something else moving forward. I know one thing... that South Carolina game cannot get here soon enough.
The most interesting thing I noticed about Hightower's absence was that we seemed to be taking fewer risks defensively. With Hightower and McClain in the game at the same time, we were taking a lot of risks with blitzes because we felt the linebacker corps could still get the job done even if they were undermanned simply because those two were in the game. Against Kentucky, though, we didn't see that kind of risk-taking, and that may have been one of the reasons why we didn't rush the passer as well. Truth be told, of Hartline's 31 passing attempts, we really only had one sack, and that came after Anders put a great move on Zipp Duncan out of a basic four man rush.
Randall Cobb and Derrick Locke made our defense look bad. Period. We couldn't cover 'em, and we couldn't tackle 'em.
The pass defense wasn't great, but it generally played pretty well. Javier Arenas looked really bad on the deep touchdown pass Cobb -- seriously, Cobb watched that football for about three seconds and Arenas never was even aware the ball was in the air -- but aside from that things were good. Taking out that one pass, Kentucky completed only about 50% of their passes and averaged only about 4.0 yards per attempt. Of course, though, given how poorly Hartline played, that should have been the outcome.
On the whole though, being unable to stop the Kentucky offense, this was probably the worst defensive performance we've had since 2007. Sure, Florida and Utah did well against us last year, but they were great offenses. Kentucky did well against us yesterday, and they were a bad offense. Big difference there. Our defense ought to be fuming mad after watching this film.
The kick coverage unit... this has to be one of the worst I've ever seen. Yesterday was actually one of our "better" days, and still two of the four returned kicks went out to midfield. It's been five games of this and we've seen no improvement, and right now I really just don't see much of a reason to expect any better. If all that was required was a simple fix, it would have been fixed by now.
Best fact of the day? With the win over Kentucky, Alabama has an 18-2 record in our last 20 games. That is easily our best mark since the height of the Stallings era.
All in all, not the best day for the Tide. We didn't play very well, and the lopsided final score was more the result of Kentucky beating themselves than anything else. We clearly will have to play better moving forward. Of course, though, wins in this league never come easy, and in all fairness Kentucky is a decent team that will likely make a bowl game, so an 18-point victory, on the road, is far from shabby. We clearly need to play better, but more than anything else this game just shows how much Saban has changed the mindset and the culture of the program. At every point from 1997-2008, we would have been literally wetting ourselves with glee over such a victory, and now such a victory is met general criticism. The times have changed in Tuscaloosa, that much we know.