A few thoughts from the early aftermath of the 23-10 victory over Ole Miss:
Offensively, in the trenches it was a repeat of the South Carolina game. Until very late in the game Ole Miss was holding Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson to a combined average of 3.8 yards per carry, and frankly they dominated us in the trenches on the offensive side of the ball. Jerrell Powe and Ted Laurent controlled the defensive interior, and the run blitzes were just as effective as they were a week ago. The sad thing is that Ingram and Richardson fought tooth and nail for every inch they gained, and given what they were provided in the way of running room most of their production was the result of their own ability more than anything that the offensive line did. Whether it's physical exhaustion or some other issue I do not know, but regardless the ultimate point remains that for the second consecutive week we were consistently beaten up front at the point of attack.
On the whole, it's one thing to not be a prolific offense, but as of right now we are not even a particularly good offense. Through four conference games we are averaging only 22 points per game, we still cannot take advantage of scoring opportunities in opponent territory, the passing game is struggling greatly, and the running game is getting stopped despite having the best tailback duo in the country. We barely averaged five yards per play against one of the worst defenses we'll face all season, and we scored fewer points against them than did Jacksonville State, Vanderbilt, Fresno State, and Kentucky. If you are saying very many positive things about this offense at this point, you probably need to put down the crimson-tinted sunglasses.
Julio Jones may be the single toughest player to ever put on an Alabama uniform in my lifetime. His standard operating procedure is to play through one serious injury after another, and last night was no exception. Five days removed from surgery, he was once again back in the starting lineup. He came out after re-injuring the hand -- that may have been a dirty play, actually, by Jeremy McGee -- but Saban said in the postgame that he was fine and that he could have returned if needed. Hopefully we can just hold him out next week against Tennessee.
- After the thumping we received in Columbia, I imagine we will take a win any way we can get it at this point, but admittedly it was an ugly performance. Never underestimate the importance of getting a victory, even if it had the aesthetic value of an episode of Roseanne, and surely Ohio State and Nebraska would have given anything to have just won ugly yesterday. Nevertheless, if your standard is to play to a high level and play like a legitimate national championship contender, we fell far short of that standard last night.
- The defense was noticeably improved against Ole Miss looking at the raw statistics, holding the top scoring offense in the SEC to only 243 total yards of offense and 10 points. Good end result, if nothing else. Having said that, what does it really mean? This was the first semi-competent defense that Ole Miss has faced all season, and as Nick Saban is fond of saying, on a lot of plays we did not defend them but they simply did not make them. A drop on a wide open slant pass prevented a big touchdown pass on the opening drive of the game, and Jeremiah Masoli badly missed an easy touchdown pass in the flats, among other mistakes. We generally stopped Colonel Reb, but we were consistently assisted along the way by the opposition.
- Most frustrating of all on defense? In the second half we still could not get a stop on third and long. Six times in the second half Ole Miss converted a third down of six yards or longer, and three times they converted a third down of ten yards or longer. In effect, Ole Miss converted third and long situations at about a 75% clip in the second half. That extended the game and allowed Ole Miss to hang around far longer than they should have, and until our defense can find a way to consistently force stops on third and Northport, we're going to be ripe for the picking against opposing offenses.
- The play of the game? Undoubtedly the 85-yard touchdown to Trent Richardson on the screen pass. Houston Nutt and company will surely have to resist the great urge to jump out the window while watching that screen pass in film review. When you call a screen to the tailback on third and Oakman, as an offense you are just looking to avoid the big negative play and give your punter some more room. And when it goes for 80+ yards for a touchdown? That's a defensive breakdown the entire way, and one that changed the entire complexion of the game. That score extended the lead to 23-3, and Ole Miss went 71 yards for a touchdown on the following drive. Take away that screen to Richardson and we're probably in a 16-10 game late in the third quarter and in the middle of a meltdown. More than anything else, that single play broke the back of Ole Miss.
- Despite the big play to Richardson, all told the passing game was more of the same. We still had no vertical threat whatsoever -- McElroy finished something like 2-8 on throws of ten yards or longer -- and McElroy was sacked four times. That is to say nothing of the dropped pick-six by Joel Kight. If you factor out the screen to Richardson and add in the yards lost on the sacks, we had roughly 28 passing attempts that gained a combined 118 yards. And when you are averaging 4.2 yards per passing attempt, what more even needs to be said? For better or for worse, McElroy seems relatively secure in his starting job, but it's hard to imagine how the passing game could get much worse than this if A.J. McCarron went into the game.
Dre Kirkpatrick once again re-injured his left shoulder last night, and while it ultimately did not turn out to be as bad as initially feared, it's still a major concern moving forward. The shoulder popped out of place and keep in mind that is the same shoulder that he has had two major surgeries on in the past two years. More than anything else, that shoulder is likely the biggest reason for his lack of physical play, and the recovery from the surgeries has cost him time in the strength and conditioning program. Obviously we avoided a major loss when he came back into the game, but his development as a player will continue to be hindered so long as the shoulder continues to be an issue.
Alfred McCullough played well in place of the injured D.J. Fluker. He was generally solid in pass protection and he held his own in the running game. He'll be tested more seriously against LSU, but he was not the root cause of whatever ailed us offensively last night.
DeMarcus Milliner had another rough night, but once again never came out of the game. Phelon Jones came into the game when Kirkpatrick went out with his shoulder injury, so presumably he is the top back-up at corner, but even so it does not seem like anyone else is seriously challenging Milliner for playing time at the moment. Hopefully the early playing time will pay dividends at a later point, but for now opposing offensive coordinators love to pick on the true freshman.
All told, this game just had an odd feeling permeate throughout. We had countless opportunities to blow Ole Miss out of the water but never could get the job done, and Ole Miss had countless opportunities to turn this into a nailbiter but continued incompetence kept that from happening. In that vein, with a solid performance this could have been a blowout, but by the same token a solid performance by Ole Miss could have easily resulted in an upset.
Two days ago I wrote that the Tide began survival mode against Ole Miss, and survival mode may be the best description of our performance last night. If your measure of success is to simply avoid defeat then last night was a success, but by other objective measuring sticks we simply did not play very well. We survived, but we did little else, and in the end we successfully addressed few, if any, of the issues that have ailed us through the first half. Hopefully we can continue to survive against Tennessee and find a way to play at a high level in Baton Rouge in two weeks. If not...