A few thoughts from the early aftermath of Alabama's 30-10 victory over Mississippi State:
The offensive line, in particular, had a very bad night, and arguably that could be considered the worst performance we've had up front since the 2009 Sugar Bowl. The running game largely never took off with the tailbacks, the quarterbacks were routinely harassed, and at one point in the game we had four consecutive carries that resulted in a tackle for a loss. When you have a Heisman Trophy winning tailback average 2.9 yards per carry on 18 carries, that alone probably says all that needs to be said about the poor play from the offensive line. The great mystery of the 2010 Crimson Tide must be why our offensive line seemingly forgot how to control opposing defenses in the trenches.
Barrett Jones went out early in the game with an ankle sprain, and later Nick Saban said in his postgame press conference that Jones was "very questionable" for the Georgia State game. I have no real doubt that he will not play in that contest, but he was on the sidelines in crutches and at this point it seems this injury is likely of the dreaded high ankle variety. The question becomes whether or not he can be healthy enough to play (and play well) against Auburn, especially given the issues that William Vlachos has had of late and the fact that we will need him to play very well to consistently block Nick Fairley. Anthony Steen came into the game in his place, and to put it nicely he had his fair share of struggles. Simply put, we need to get Barrett Jones back healthy and on the field in two weeks time.
- From the outset I suppose it should be noted that yesterday was a bit of a bittersweet day because the Auburn victory over Georgia ended any chances of Alabama returning to Atlanta for the third year in a row, but having said that we can do nothing else but beat those teams that are ahead of us, and to that end securing a relatively easy victory over Mississippi State should not be overlooked. After playing poorly last weekend in Baton Rouge, I think quite a few people -- myself included -- were worried that this game could easily result in a loss, so to be coming off of that setback, to respond relatively well and secure a victory over a top twenty team while never being put in any legitimate fear of a defeat is no minor accomplishment. The overall performance was far from perfect, but no one can reasonably complain about the final result.
- In the end, the 2010 Alabama v. Mississippi State game seemingly picked up right where the 2009 game left off. One year ago in Starkville, MSU played hard and played a relatively even game with us only to ultimately see that contest turn into a landslide thanks to a handful of key lapses that resulted in big plays for the Crimson Tide. The same basic story repeated itself last night, as the Bullies allowed two short throws to turn into long touchdown passes while also allowing a jet sweep to Julio Jones -- a play that we've tried four times earlier in the year with no real success -- to turn into a 56-yard touchdown run. Give Dan Mullen and company credit for showing up prepared to play, but for the second year in a row a handful of key lapses cost them an otherwise solid performance.
- Twenty-two minutes into this game Alabama was clinging to a narrow 6-3 lead in a closely played contest, and the total yardage numbers were almost precisely even. Consider that temporary status to be the result of very poor play by the 'Bama lines on both sides of the football. Our offensive line was simply dominated in the trenches for much of the one-third of the game, and the defensive line fared little better. The line play improved in the second half as we seemingly wore down the Bullies over the course of four quarters, but the point remains that the early returns were very discouraging. Perhaps no other factor explains the drop-off from the 2009 Tide to the current version than the poor play at the point of attack on both sides of the football. I don't care what happens at the skill positions, no football team will ever play at a consistently high level when getting dominated in the trenches like we were for much of the first half last night.
Alfred McCullough got off to a rough start that was highlighted by the near safety that was almost given up when Pernell McPhee beat him badly with a speed rush to the outside. McCullough quickly found the bench after that, and D.J. Fluker -- out since the end of the South Carolina game -- returned to action. Obviously the coaching staff was hoping to see McCullough be able to endure, and that alone likely tells you that Fluker is still not 100%, but having said that Fluker did play well in his return. I've said since he missed the LSU game that the target date for his return was likely the Iron Bowl, and given his performance tonight you have to feel that not only should he play against Auburn, he should be able to play at a high level.
A.J. McCarron played the final quarter of last night's win, and in many ways he showcased both the positives and negatives of putting him under center. He showed off his strong arm and made a couple of nice throws, but he also threw an ugly pass off his back foot, took a key sack in the red zone, and narrowly avoided yet another sack. In other words, McCarron's performance showed you both why fans are so excited about him and why Greg McElroy is still the starting quarterback.
Greg McElroy generally played fairly well in the first half, but his third quarter was not one he'll want to remember after a bad interception and a fumble outside the pocket. Those mistakes had no bearing on the outcome of last night's game, but those are the kind of mistakes he will not be able to make against Auburn in two weeks if we are to pull off the upset.
Eddie Lacy looked impressive in the opportunities that he was given last night. He still probably needs to eliminate that spin move, or at least use it less frequently, but it's hard not to be excited about his future prospects when seeing him carry the ball. He's bigger than both Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, and if he is lacking any of their top-end speed it is not by much. His play on passing downs needs to improve, but even so this is clearly a player with a very bright future.
Dre Kirkpatrick did not start last night, a decision that Nick Saban later said was the result of some disciplinary issues with the Gadsden product. He didn't miss the entire game, however, and in fact played a good bit, so I doubt this punishment was the result of anything overly serious. Nevertheless, having said that, Saban has spoken throughout the year a handful of times about players needing to make the right choices, and it's possible that shortcomings regarding discipline and focus may be driving, at least in part, the issues that we have had on the defensive side of the ball. At the very least, hopefully Kirkpatrick will use this as a learning moment and as a step towards reaching his potential.
Alex Watkins has replaced Ed Stinson as the back-up Jack linebacker in recent weeks, and he played quite a bit last night against Mississippi State. Aside from Burton Scott and Jerrell Harris, perhaps few players have had a tougher season than Stinson, who went from being the starting Jack linebacker when Upshaw suffered the high ankle sprain against San Jose State to not even being able to get on the field. Nevertheless, hats off to Alex Watkins for continuing to develop as a linebacker and for playing up to his potential. The raw athleticism has always been there with him, so it's nice to see the light finally going on.
All in all, the defensive performance yesterday was pretty solid, even if not exactly outstanding. The real issue, I think, moving forward is that Mississippi State largely stopped itself on many occasions with a variety of timely mishaps (several dropped passes by the receivers, an interception off a wide receiver who fell down on a route, a terrible throw by Chris Relf, etc.). Hopefully the end result is a sign of the defense making progress, but even so I must admit that it's easy to be suspicious when I browse through the box scores today and realize that Louisiana-Monroe held Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee to a combined 8-22 for 95 yards with no touchdowns.
With all of the issues that we have had on both offense and defense, the much improved special teams units have largely gone unnoticed, and last night may have been their best performance to date. Jeremy Shelley and Cade Foster successfully converted all three field goal opportunities, Cody Mandell netted 38 yards per punt, we held the MSU kick returners to an average of 16 yards per return, and we are finally starting to get some production in the punt return game with Marquis Maze. Clearly things have not gone as planned with either the offense or defense, but give a tip of the hat to the special teams units for making some improvement and playing at a much higher level than most expected.
I want to venture off topic for a moment and make one side note regarding the broadcast and ask a simple question: Is it humanly possible to have a more unprofessional broadcast than we had tonight? When showing the quote of Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen regarding the passing of Nick Bell, the ESPN graphic identified him as "Dan Miller." Later, while discussing a tailback at Pitt some thirty years ago, the broadcast cut to the announcers practically wrestling in the booth while missing the actual game taking place on the field. And, finally, when Tyler Russell came into the game, all we heard about was "Russell Tyler." Now look, I don't expect perfection, but at least a small bit of competence would be nice every now and again, and we didn't even see that last night. I will never understand why a company would spend billions of dollars for the legal rights to broadcast an event and then completely ignore any quality control process.
All in all, a win is a win is a win, and honestly now all eyes turn to Auburn. Beating Mississippi State was the end result we hoped for and overall the performance was the solid rebound that we had all wanted to see, but having said that the Bullies are basically Auburn Light. For everything that MSU does, Auburn does it and does it better with more talented players. The quarterback is a much better passer and a more athletic runner, the offensive line is significantly better, the backs are far more explosive, the receivers are more reliable, the defense has some legitimate stars, etc. We will face Cam Newton, and we must accept the spoiler role. And let me be frank, victory will not come easy, and we need to show a great deal of improvement in the next twelve days to pull off the upset. To be very blunt about the subject, if we come and play like we typically have this season and they play like they typically have this season, that's not a recipe for victory if you bleed crimson. There is no real purpose served by deluding ourselves into thinking that we will magically find a way to victory, we're going to have to improve and earn it on the field. No one ever said it would be easy, but nevertheless it is where we find ourselves now. Hope for the best.