Things weren't always pretty, but nevertheless everything generally worked out well in the end with the Tide knocking off the Golden Panthers of FIU 40-14 in the home opener in Tuscaloosa. A few initial impressions on the game:
- After an impressive debut against Virginia Tech, Greg McElroy built on that foundation again today with his performance over Florida International. He ultimately went 18-24 for 241 yards, 1 touchdown, and 0 interceptions, and frankly regardless of the opponent you can never complain when your quarterback completes 75% of his passes, averages 10 yards per attempt, and doesn't turn the football over. I'm sure McElroy will experience some pains later on down the road, but nevertheless he has gotten off to as good of a start as we could have hoped for, and frankly he's played better in the two games so far this than John Parker Wilson ever did at any point of the 2008 campaign.
- The knee injury to Julio Jones has gotten a lot of attention, and rightly so. Obviously he must have been in some degree of pain for him to stay on the sideline, but I imagine it was more to do with the staff wanting to be cautious with him than anything else. Obviously we'll know more in the next couple of days, but the fact that he never went to the locker room, never went to get an MRI, an x-ray, or anything of the sort bodes well for the (hopefully) limited severity of the injury. Furthermore, keep in mind that Jones was injured on the end-around, and stayed in the game for several more players after the injury occurred. Again, we won't know anything definitive until another day or so, but for now I see no real reason to be concerned.
- The good news is how well we've done in Jones' absence. After his critical drop on third and short early in the fourth quarter of the Virginia Tech game, we didn't throw in his direction the rest of the night, and the offense still put 18 more points on the board. Likewise, Jones really wasn't a factor today -- three balls went his way, and they included a nine-yard catch, a five-yard end around, and a dropped touchdown pass -- but in his absence guys like Mike McCoy, Earl Alexander, Darius Hanks, and others stepped up to fill the void, and we still put up 40 points on the board (and it should have been more). Obviously there is no replacing a player like Julio, and it goes without saying that we all hope his injury is nothing serious, but it is comforting to see that we can still field a solid, functional offense even when we aren't getting any real contributions from the Foley product.
- Speaking of other injuries, the knee injury to Damion Square is particularly disheartening. The redshirt freshman from Houston had been playing really well, and the general consensus is that the severity of the knee injury will force him to miss the remainder of the season. Square had to be carted to the locker room, which is never a good sign, and I imagine it's some type of ligament damage involved. Nevertheless, he's a fine young man with a promising future ahead of him. Hopefully he can take things in stride and start getting prepared for 2010 (if the knee is as bad as feared), and then hopefully we can successfully petition the NCAA for a medical hardship waiver on down the road if it comes to that.
- The rest of the injuries, fortunately, aren't as serious as Square's knee injury. Mark Ingram showed no signs of limitation from the knee injury he suffered late last weekend against Virginia Tech, and while Roy Upchurch's ankle sprain was a bit frustrating, Upchurch's fragility isn't exactly breaking news, and at this point you just have to be happy that it was nothing more serious, and from here on just count any production from Upchurch as a bonus. For what it's worth, the ankle sprain did look pretty serious -- Upchurch returned to the sideline in street clothes, and was sporting a protective boot on his lower leg -- and I imagine he either misses the next few weeks or is limited for the next few weeks. Hopefully that's not the case, but I'm afraid this wasn't just your typical minor day-to-day ankle tweak for Upchurch. Fortunately, though, there were no other major injuries reported for the rest of the team, so the news is good on that front.
- With Ingram limited somewhat by the flu and Upchurch injuring his ankle early, the door was opened for the arrival of Trent Richardson and he did not disappoint. To date, Richardson has shown why he was so highly-touted coming out of Escambia. He is built like a bodybuilder and runs with great power, but he's no glorified fullback out there, he has a lot of top-end speed and overall agility to boot. Moreover, he did a decent job tonight in pass protection, and showed off his hands catching the football out of the backfield. He's still a true freshman and will experience some growing pains, inevitably, but he looks to be an asset for the Tide in 2009, and if Upchurch's injury issues continue, he's going to prove to be an invaluable asset at that. Prior to the season I said that he could probably get 150 carries on the year, and if Upchurch misses some time throughout the course of the year, Richardson will probably get near that mark. In particular, if Upchurch's sprained ankle indeed does keep him out or limited for a few weeks, expect Richardson to be a major cog of the offense.
- As expected, we did see some more true freshmen in action tonight in addition to Trent Richardson and Rod Woodson -- both of whom played against Virginia Tech and played again tonight against FIU -- including Dre Kirkpatrick, Nico Johnson, Kerry Murphy, Michael Bowman, and Chance Warmack. The real surprises of the group were Michael Bowman and Chance Warmack, but in all fairness neither of those are necessarily big surprises. Bowman is supremely talented physically, and Warmack enrolled early and fought hard for a starting job this Fall. Of those true freshmen who didn't play tonight, most are probably headed for a redshirt season. Of the few possible exceptions, keep your eye on Tana Patrick, D.J. Fluker, and Kevin Norwood.
Thomas Darrah went into the game first tonight when Greg McElroy went out, but I wouldn't necessarily venture to say that he is the back-up at this point. Star Jackson was limited by the flu this week, and that had to hurt his chances against FIU. Truth be told, I still don't think anyone really knows who would take over if McElroy were forced out for an extended period of time.
- Nobody will ever say that FIU has a dominating defense, but even so the offensive line did pretty well tonight. Greg McElroy was sacked only once on 24 passing attempts, and while FIU isn't exactly known for a fierce pass rush, the big uglies kept their quarterback upright, and that's all you can ever ask. Likewise, those guys did a pretty nice job in the running game as well. I think it's relatively clear that we cannot be the physically dominating unit like we were a year ago, but for the second week in a row these guys kept plugging at it and eventually got the job done. We didn't exactly annihilate FIU at the point of attack, but you can never complain about 42 carries for 295 yards and 4 touchdowns on the ground. All in all, again, regardless of the opponent, all you can ask for your offensive line is to go out and get the job done, and our guys generally did that tonight.
- The defensive line is continuing to perform at an extremely high level. Despite the disappointing injury to Square, the rest of the defensive line was nothing short of dominating. FIU ended up with zero yards rushing on the day, and the defensive line itself picked up three sacks, a particularly impressive figure considering that linemen in the 3-4 are more designed to occupy space and blockers and then let the linebackers run free to make plays. Marcel Dareus continues to have the look of a superstar in the making, and Lorenzo Washington is really playing at the level that so many hoped he would when he signed with the Tide way back in 2004 (Shula's first class).
- The pass rush as a whole, moreover, continued to be particularly impressive. We ended up with five sacks on only 38 passing attempts, not to mention nine quarterback hurries and at least one intentional grounding penalty. I said in the preview that the FIU offensive line was nothing overly special, and admittedly they gave up a relatively high number of sacks a year ago, but the way we got after the quarterback was still impressive. Objectively, our ability to rush the passer in the first two games augers well for the stretch run.
- The pass defense, generally speaking, had a good night, but in the first half we did struggle quite a bit and things got very frustrating. Admittedly, it is important to get perspective on the subject by pointing out that, while FIU had a 14-13 lead, seven of those points came on a kick return, and the following seven came after we spotted them the football on the 40-yard line thanks to a Leigh Tiffin kick sailing out of bounds. So it wasn't really that bad -- as maddening as it was at the time -- and in all fairness we really did shut down FIU in the second half with no problem. Their five meaningful possessions of the second half resulted in a whopping twenty yards of total offense, and it really became a non-issue. Perhaps our cover schemes were a bit vanilla in the first half, perhaps we struggled with the speed of their no huddle offense, but whatever the cause it was something that we fixed in the second half. I do think we still need to play better pass defense against solid spread teams, but I don't think I'd get overly worried about what we saw tonight. All told, the FIU passing game tonight went 18-38 for for 213 yards, 1 touchdown, and 1 interception. That's a completion percentage of only 47%, and a QB rating of only 97.8. Given that much of the production came on picking up third and long plays -- which generally tend to be a bit of a fluky occurrence -- I'm not complaining too much.
- One guy who did struggle a lot tonight in the defensive backfield was Kareem Jackson. He gave up a couple of long passing plays, had a pass interference penalty that was key in a FIU scoring drive, and dropped what should have been an easy interception. Jackson played well against Virginia Tech, but he struggled a bit down the stretch in 2008, and tonight was probably one of his worst games. He can play well at times, but he's also a streaky player who can be a liability at times too. I just hope he works out whatever his issues are before the stretch run of conference play begins.
- Also frustrating tonight was that we continued to leave points on the board. Leigh Tiffin was his consistently inconsistent self, which included a missed 39-yard field goal and a kick-off that went out of bounds. Julio Jones, though it's hard to say how much the knee injury was limiting him, nevertheless dropped a touchdown pass that he should have caught. The same goes for Colin Peek as well. Likewise, penalties continued to be an issue, and in particular a holding penalty on Drew Davis in the red zone likely took away a touchdown drive. It's hard to complain too much when you still put 40 points up on the board, but even with that kind of production we still left a lot more out there, and while we can get away with this against the FIU's of the world, this type of foot-shooting can very well result in a loss (or losses) in conference play. Hopefully we can improve offensive efficiency moving forward and stop leaving so many points on the board.
- The biggest problem tonight, of course, was continued breakdowns by the kick coverage team, and that point I really do not even know what to say. We have some of the best athletes in the country playing kick coverage, and there is absolutely no reason why we shouldn't have one of the best kick coverage teams around. What I can say, however, is that unless we get this problem fixed immediately, it's going to cost us a game at some point. SEC play is just entirely too tough, and the margin of error against many opponents in conference play is so small that we will not be able to afford to allow our opponent to just race to the end zone on a kick return and still expect to win. Either we take care of this problem soon, or this problem will take care of us soon. Hopefully it's the former, not the latter.
- At the end of the day, FIU looked pretty solid in this game. They aren't a great team, obviously, but again they are nowhere near the laughingstock that many of our fans ridiculed them for being prior to this game. They are a solid Sun Belt team with a lot of experience and a good young coach, and it's a team that may very well end up in a bowl game came late December. Best of luck to them.
- For Alabama, it's hard to complain too much. If nothing else, we're pretty healthy, 2-0, and #4 in the country. If you are asking for much more than that, chances are you are simply being greedy. We're in pretty good shape, and you won't see me doing any real complaining. On the other hand, though, in all fairness, we aren't a perfect team by any stretch of the imagination. We have more than our fair share of flaws -- offensive line isn't dominating in the run game like a year ago, we're leaving points on the board, penalties are hurting us, special teams are killing us, and the pass defense has looked shaky at times against FIU -- and no destination is guaranteed for us, not even Atlanta. Nevertheless, things have pretty much gone as well as can be reasonably expected thus far, and for now we just have to focus on fixing the shortcomings that we have displayed to date. We aren't there yet, but we've gotten off to a good start and now we just have to focus on improvement.