Initial Impressions from the South Carolina Game

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A few thoughts from the early aftermath of the 35-21 loss to South Carolina:

  • Nothing lasts forever, and as joyous as our most recent romp was, all good things must come to an end, and so it ended last night. Tough feeling -- only the 1993 Tennessee game could really compare -- but with 19 straight wins, a national championship, and 29 straight regular season wins, take a moment just to appreciate the sheer magnitude of the accomplishment. Most schools can never do that, and for much of our decade-long roaming of the wilderness it looked as if we never would again, either. We all knew it would end one day, but the end does not take away from the joy of the ride.
  • Nostalgia aside, moving ahead, the offensive playcalling was very questionable late in the game, especially throwing back-to-back passes after Mark Ingram created a 2nd and 5 in the South Carolina red zone. Given the defensive struggles, I find it hard to justify throwing the football in that situation. Going back to the previous quarter, after the Garcia turnover, we get a first down on the South Carolina 28-yard line, trailing by ten points, and three straight passing plays fail to move the chains. Another questionable series. On the whole, though, the fact that Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson combined for only 17 carries is disappointing, but realistically the defensive meltdown necessitated the move away from the running game. Quite obviously, it's hard to commit to the run when facing a 21-3 deficit sixteen minutes into the game. The playcalling in those two specific situations were questionable, but on the whole the flow of the game necessitated the pass-heavy strategy. Want to run the ball more? Try to keep it under a three-possession game in the first half.
  • Having said that, the point remains that on 17 carries both Ingram and Richardson combined to average 3.7 yards per carry with a long gain of 13 yards. Give South Carolina credit, their 4-2-5 base set killed our running game with heavy run blitzes. Ellis Johnson had it figured out, Urban Meyer had it all wrong. The Gators made the mistake of trying to stop our run with sheer size in the defensive front seven, which only exposed themselves fully to our short-and-intermediate passing attack. South Carolina, however, decided to attack with numbers and speed, allowing them to run blitz constantly while still having the athleticism on the field to cover the short-and-intermediate passing game. We needed to stretch the field vertically on a consistent basis to force them away from that strategy, and we simply could not do that. And, moving forward, until we can do that, every opposing defensive coordinator ought to employ the exact same strategy that Ellis Johnson used today. Hat tip to him, that's how to stop Ingram and Richardson. We had no answer for it.
  • The first glance shows seven sacks allowed and 64 yards rushing by the tailbacks, making it easy to point to the offensive line play as the shortcoming. As is sometimes the case, however, the easy answer here is not necessarily the correct answer. Nearly all of the sacks came on plays when McElroy had more than adequate time to throw the football down the field, and given how South Carolina was playing the running game we were going to have issues running the football as long as we struggled to throw the football vertically. It wasn't the finest hour of the offensive line, but they weren't really the issue with the offensive struggles. On the whole, I imagine they graded out relatively well in the Sunday morning film review.
  • A quick take of the raw stat line indicates a career day for Greg McElroy, but upon closer inspection the performance is far less impressive. Nearly all of the sacks fall on him, several of which were bona fide drive killers, and his complete inability to stretch the field vertically -- or hell, even attempt to stretch the field vertically -- created serious problems for the running game. When the existence of your vertical passing game depends on the opposing defensive backfield to blow an assignment and allow an opposing receiver to run uncovered (see Hanks' touchdown) you've got some serous issues. McElroy may not like the term "game manager," but even if you call what he is a "field general," as he prefers, the functional description of his strengths and shortcomings remain the same.
  • We have a legitimate problem with the offense, namely that it is a pretty good offense but by no means a prolific offense. Pretty good was good enough a year ago when matched with a impenetrable defense, but when matched with a porous defense suddenly "pretty good" simply is not good enough. A 19-point performance was adequate a year ago, but not today. In our first three conference games the offense has scored 24, 24, and 19 points, respectively, a legitimate cause for concern moving forward given the defensive shortcomings.
  • Here is some afternoon food for thought... regardless of the quality of the other component pieces, can a conventional offensive attack in the modern day SEC legitimately be an elite offensive team without a true difference-maker at the quarterback position?
  • Red zone woes... again. Four trips to the red zone net one touchdown and ten points total. And that is not even food for thought, that's just a fact. A team that consistently struggles in the red zone will not be an elite offensive team.
  • The defense, yikes. As I've written for a few weeks now, we just do nothing particularly well. We do not control at the line of scrimmage, we do not rush the passer, we do not tackle, we do not cover on the back end, we do not consistently keep contain, we do not penetrate into the offensive backfield, we do not pursue well, nothing. Making matters worse, we have no identifiable leader and little overall consistency. To paraphrase a quote from Bamagrad a few days back, we basically look like a defense with a couple of superstars and a bunch of other guys just running around taking up space. Harsh criticism, admittedly, but on-point nevertheless. Oh sure, it was nice to wax poetically about how the defense supposedly "grew up" against Arkansas, but that's really little more than taking a good performance over the course of a mere thirteen plays and blowing it out of proportion to try to make some grand point writ large. Truth be told, it would seem that in its current form our defense will have serious issues against any solid, competent offense.
  • Anyone care to speculate on what happened to our much-ballyhooed red zone defense? South Carolina made four trips to the red zone yesterday and came away with four touchdowns. I've tried to harp on that point for a month now, you cannot play bad between the 20's and then just magically expect to turn into the 1985 Chicago Bears when the opposing teams enter the red zone. Oh sure, you may do that for a few games -- and we certainly did that -- but long-term that is simply not sustainable and eventually you will run across teams that will move through the red zone with just as much ease as they did the preceding sixty yards. Consider South Carolina that team.
  • On Thursday afternoon I wrote that in order to stop the South Carolina offense we must dominate this team at the line of scrimmage. We had to pressure Garcia and shut down the running game. We did neither. And not only did we not dominate, we ourselves were dominated in the trenches. Garcia was barely touched all day, and the South Carolina tailbacks ground out solid gain after solid gain. Our defensive front made a historically atrocious offensive line look like the Seven Blocks of Granite. 
  • Yesterday afternoon South Carolina scored touchdowns five times. Until garbage time, we stopped the South Carolina offense two times. Think about that. We had more than two legitimate stops of Utah in the Sugar Bowl. Hell, we had more than two legitimate stops of LSU in 2001. Stephen Garcia, Stephen Garcia, had an 85% completion rate. In hindsight, the only real surprise was that we only allowed 35 points. It could have been worse.
  • By my count, South Carolina converted third and long five times in six tries, with the only failure coming when Spurrier decided to play it safe with a wide receiver screen. That sums up all of the defensive issues nicely. When your opponent consistently converts third and long with ease, what real hope do you ever have of stopping them?
  • Backbreaking moment of the entire game? After cutting the lead to 21-14, South Carolina goes on an 83-yard drive that takes up seven minutes and extends the lead 28-14 with another easy touchdown. That one was pure pain, the type of soul harvesting drive that we expect Alabama to produce, not become the victims of. Unfortunately, on this day, it was our souls being harvested. After that, it became evident that the jig was up... we had no answer for South Carolina offensively, and we were merely reduced to hoping that they would stop themselves.
  • When South Carolina went to the empty back set, as they routinely did, that just screamed "We are not afraid of your front four." With a four-man rush, Spurrier and company knew they could double Dareus and that no one else in our front four could even get a hand on Garcia. Ouch. Truth hurts.
  • I found the way we played Alshon Jeffery very, very strange. We rarely doubled him, we rarely bracketed him, and only on rare occasions did we even give the corner safety help. Instead we rotated individual players in vein attempts to cover him -- Milliner, Kirkpatrick, Barron, etc. -- with one having as little success as the next. For whatever reason, we kept trying to stop him that same way, even though we clearly had no one who could legitimately match-up with him. Predictably, he ate us alive all afternoon. 
  • We should probably stop with the fake punts and kicks, but in the final analysis, even as Saban admitted in the postgame press conference, the fake kick had no real bearing on the outcome of the game. Even had we converted for a touchdown and tied the game, at some point we were going to have to stop South Carolina offensively in order to win this game, and we simply could not do that. The momentum shift didn't help, but we couldn't stop South Carolina with all of the momentum either, so it's likely a moot point.
  • All in all, it was just a bad performance and we were significantly outplayed in each quarter and in every phase of the game: offense, defense, and special teams. This was no fluke loss resulting from some bad breaks. South Carolina proved themselves to be the superior team yesterday in every capacity, and the final scoreboard merely reflected that harsh reality. The loss was disappointing, but nevertheless well-deserved, and in the aggregate few legitimate complaints can be aired. Travis Reier succinctly noted it quite well, in two SEC road games to date we have been outplayed (significantly in most instances) in seven of eight quarters, yet somehow we have earned a split in those games. It's disappointing, but nevertheless it is likely the best realistic end result we could have hoped for given our performance.
  • Finally, regarding national championship implications, let's step back for a moment. No, we're probably not going to be able to make it to Glendale -- for time being anyway, entirely too many undefeated BCS conference teams to consider that a likelihood, and we just lost all control of our own destiny -- but that should not be the focal point now anyway. When you have played as poorly as we have in two of the last three weeks, and when you specifically review the South Carolina game, this is a team with a lot of problems right now and frankly a team who should not even be thinking about the notion of a national championship at this juncture. We need to be focused on fixing the many problems we have, and trying to re-establish ourselves as a team that consistently plays good football in every phase of the game. If we can reel off four straight wins from here and actually fix a lot of the problems we have then we can perhaps start talking about national championship possibilities, but for now we must move back to stage one and quickly address much more fundamental concerns. We've got to figure out how to get a stop on third and Fort Sumter before we can figure out where we fit in the national championship picture.
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