Initial Impressions from the Arkansas Game

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A few initial impressions from the Tide's 35-7 win over Arkansas on Saturday:

  • For the second year in a row, 'Bama moves to 4-0 with a blowout win over Arkansas, and though the margin of victory wasn't as high as it was a year ago Fayetteville, if you look at all of the other metrics of the game, this year's game was actually far more lopsided than the contest a year ago. One way or the other, though, overall there are no real complaints about our performance today. Arkansas is still clearly building under Petrino, but it's still a decent SEC caliber team that should make a bowl game, and you never complain when you can blow out someone like that. 
  • The one major complaint I will have with this game is that the Hogs played dirty ball, plain and simple. The shot on Hightower was cheap, even though probably legal, and that's not counting the other clipping penalties, the egregious facemask on Julio on Richardson's touchdown run, the absurd no-call on roughing the passer late, etc. You could effectively go on all day rattling off dirty play after dirty play by Arkansas. It was easily the dirtiest game I've seen any opponent play against Alabama since Southern Miss in 2005, and honestly even the Golden Eagles had nothing that night that could hold a candle to what Arkansas showed today. Petrino ought to be ashamed of himself, and frankly he ought to be thankful Saban called off the dogs late. The Nicktator could have ran up the score and chose not to, which is something that many others (myself included) would not have done.
  • And speaking of Dont'a Hightower, well, unfortunately we have to address that sooner or later. Obviously we know nothing official at this point and we won't get anything official until the MRI results come back later today. Nevertheless, sigh, I'm afraid all objective indicators point to significant structural damage to the knee, and most likely a season-ending injury. Even if it's not season-ending, Hightower looks to miss an extended period of time. Hopefully that's not the case, but objectively speaking that's what all signs currently point to. In his absence, Cory Reamer played well, but frankly there is no replacing Hightower. If our fears are confirmed later today, I'll have a post up later this week on how his absence will impact us and how we will look to replace him.
  • Defensively, you almost just have to stand in awe of what this unit accomplished today. At worst, outside of Tuscaloosa and Gainesville, Arkansas has the best offense in the SEC, and our defense turned it into a completely impotent attack today. Ryan Mallett was pressured and harassed all afternoon, our defensive backs covered well, and we did a good job of stopping the run. All told, Arkansas ended up with seven points and only about 250 total yards of offense. They averaged only about 3.7 yards per snap, Mallett barely completed 33% of his passes, and they were an anemic 2-14 on third down. And none of that is the result of shortcomings on the part of the Arkansas offense, our defense just played that well. Even without Dont'a Hightower, our defense was still effectively an immovable object even with one of the SEC's best attacks whaling away at it.
  • Offensively things didn't go quite as well, but still a nice day. The Arkansas defense is poor, but nevertheless we racked up 35 points and 425 yards of total offense. Not our best day to date, but it really just does show you how good we have become offensively for this not to be considered a banner day. Three years ago, we couldn't even muster this kind of offensive attack against either 0-12 FIU or 0-12 Duke. 
  • Greg McElroy was nothing short of exceptional today, yet again. I know the Arkansas defense is a bad one, but even so McElroy's stat line is nevertheless incredible. The only quarterback in the SEC who has played better than him to date is Tim Tebow, and McElroy looks better each and every week. He had about one poor decision today, and that's about the norm for him. The great thing about McElroy is that he's such an accurate passer and he's so thorough about going through his checks when nothing is open down field. It just all results in it being a highly efficient passing attack... usually a "bad" passing play results in a short gain of a few yards. To date, there have just been few incompletions, very few sacks (and the few that do happen generally lose very little yardage), and almost no interceptions. Again, it all results in a highly efficient passing attack, and that all goes back to the pinpoint accuracy and great decision making ability of McElroy. I'll be honest... this is my 20th season of following Alabama football closely, and I have never seen a 'Bama quarterback playing this well. 
  • Unfortunately, the bad news with our offense is that we are heavily reliant on McElroy and the passing game. Our running game was pretty much smoked by the Hogs today, and we could manage very little on the ground. If you factor out Richardson's long touchdown run -- which, truth be told, barring the incredible run, should have been a three yard loss -- Ingram and Richardson averaged roughly 2.5 yards per carry on 25 carries. I really hate to say it, but I'm afraid this is a problem we cannot fix. Again, as I mentioned in the preview, we're over 100 pounds lighter this year at the point of attack, and we simply cannot manhandle SEC caliber defensive fronts anymore. And the little success we are getting in the running game is honestly do to having some incredible tailbacks. Honestly, if we had average tailbacks, we'd be in a world of hurt right now. As effective as our passing game has been to date, I hate to say it but offensively we are almost wholly reliant on that passing game to move the football. If the passing game ever goes out, I'm afraid we're in major trouble offensively.
  • Penalties... sigh. Yet another bad day for penalties. Some of them were admittedly a bit ticky-tack, but still, 7 penalties for 60 yards, many of which were costly. I'm afraid the penalties breakdown column will return this week.
  • The pass rush generally did a fine job today against Mallett. We had three sacks, lots of hurries, and several batted balls. Petrino did a nice job of figuring out our blitz schemes later in the game, but still a highly successful day rushing the passer for the Tide. I will say, though, that the Arkansas offensive line could officially be called the King of Holds. They were grabbing our rushers all day and it was rarely called. For a league that is supposedly cracking down on holding penalties in the passing game, you'd never realize it by watching today's game. Judging by the way the Arkansas offensive line tackled some of our rushers today, their biggest problem is that they don't play on the defensive line.
  • Cody... he's practically unstoppable as a lead blocker. He sealed off the edge on the Ingram touchdown run by pancaking one Arkansas defender into another Arkansas defender, knocking both to the ground. If there's a better way to seal off the edge than with a double pancake by a converted nose guard playing fullback, I don't know of it. And as I've said before, you can mortgage everything you own that we have a couple of plays built in to get Cody the football. It will happen at some point, guarantee it.
  • And speaking of wrinkles built into the scheme, do you now see the point that I was making with the Wildcat after the Virginia Tech game? Again, there are a million things you can do with it, and if nothing else it's an effective way to pound the interior running game. And rest assured that there are even more wrinkles built in that we will use later. 
  • All in all, it was yet another good day for the Tide, and thank the Football Gods those have been contagious as of late. Making matters better, the win over Virginia Tech is looking even more impressive after their thumping of Miami, and the remaining schedule looks even better with the continued struggles of Ole Miss and LSU. Aside from the Hightower injury, things went about as well as they possibly could have this weekend. From here, let's turn to next week and Kentucky. The Wildcats don't look all that great -- and thankfully Florida beat them up pretty good this weekend -- but we played very poorly against this team last year, and we're going to need a better performance when we go to Lexington next Saturday for kick-off at breakfast. If nothing else, Kentucky is one of the best coached teams in the country and they will show up ready to play, so we're going to have to show up prepared and ready to get the job done. No looking forward to playing Ole Miss in Oxford a week later.
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