Initial Impressions from the Arkansas Game

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A few thoughts from the early aftermath of the Tide's 24-20 win over Arkansas:

  • On Friday afternoon I wrote that the form in which we won did not matter so long as we won, and that should be the general perspective today. Undoubtedly, it was not a pretty victory in any way. We trailed for 57 minutes, the defensive nightmares came true, the offense struggled early in a shootout, and we had several costly turnovers, but all of that notwithstanding it got the job done and we made the key plays when we absolutely had to make them. We still have to get through LSU in Baton Rouge, but by staking an early win in Fayetteville we are clearly in the driver's seat to win the SEC West. 
  • Make whatever criticism of Alabama you will, and there are plenty of valid ones to be made, but give the Tide credit for its perseverance. With our backs against the wall late we didn't flinch on either side of the ball, ending the defensive busts and working like an unstoppable machine on offense. If there was ever a game you could point to in which you could say that the team took on the personality of the head coach, it would probably be this one. Much like the 2009 Iron Bowl, the fourth quarter performance yesterday afternoon was the epitome of what Nick Saban preaches. 
  • Defensively, it's hard to put a positive spin on what we did yesterday afternoon. They key positive, of course, was timely turnovers, but all three of those came on very poor throws by Mallett. Aside from those turnovers, though, we allowed well over 400 yards of offense, almost 10 yards per passing attempt, and 300+ yards to Ryan Mallett. The run defense was once again very suspect, not posting a single tackle for loss on sixteen carries by Arkansas tailbacks, and allowing those struggling backs to average 4.5 yards per carry. And in terms of pressure, there was almost none on Mallett. We had one sack on 40 passing attempts -- the second sack credited to Upshaw was a sack in name only, it was a QB scramble where we stopped Mallett about one-half of a yard short of the line of scrimmage -- and combined we hit Mallett all of about four times throughout the game. Mixed with blown defensive assignments galore, that was easily the worst defensive performance since the Sugar Bowl against Utah, and arguably since the 2007 season.
  • We improved defensively in the second half when the busted assignments came to an end, but in all honesty the biggest difference late was just a complete collapse by the Arkansas offense. After a solid, clock-grinding drive yielded three points and gave them a 20-7 lead, Arkansas simply imploded. The following possession they gained 18 yards before ending the drive with a drop by Greg Childs and a dumb penalty by Joe Adams (one that off-set a dumb Alabama penalty). From there, on the final two drives of the game, Mallett made two bad throws on balls that should have never been throw. He went for broke on a deep post route on third and long, but missed badly high and behind the receiver, and he followed that up on the final drive -- with the Hogs at midfield, plenty of time, and two timeouts -- by lobbing a throwaway that should have been thrown in the tenth row. Dre Kirkpatrick slid underneath it for a nifty interception, and that was all she wrote for the Hogs. Admittedly our defense stopped destroying themselves with blown coverages, but by the same token Arkansas beat themselves down the stretch offensively with key drops, dumb penalties, and terrible throws.
  • Ryan Mallett fell apart late, and the key to that may have been the chest-blow delivered by Nick Gentry early in the fourth quarter. After Gentry delivered that blow -- the first decent hit we had on Mallett in 30 passing attempts -- the Texarkana native fell apart. The footwork devolved into something from sandlot football, and bad decisions started to come in bunches. Perhaps that blow had nothing to do with it, but regardless Mallett was a completely different quarterback after we finally got a helmet on him.
  • Many complained throughout the game that we were not running the football enough, and while admittedly we were throwing the football quite a bit, I'll defend Jim McElwain here. The most interesting thing about our running game is that, for all of the ability of Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, we do somewhat struggle to run the football out of run-heavy formations (the Wildcat notwithstanding). When we tried two tight ends yesterday and Arkansas knew the run was coming, we had very little success, but when we spread the field and then ran it at them, we could run the football at will. Oddly enough, I think, we are a team that passes to set up the run.
  • The biggest difference in the outcome of the game yesterday? Performance on third down. 'Bama went 8-14 on third down, including several key third down conversions in the fourth quarter, while Arkansas went a mere 2-10. Again, it was an ugly performance overall, but Alabama ultimately prevailed by doing what it had to do exactly at the moment it had to do it.
  • Nico Johnson probably wins defensive player of the game out of those in the front seven, and his addition to the starting lineup turned out to be a major decision for the Alabama coaching staff. He had eight tackles, and he had several key plays yesterday. At times in run defense, it seemed like he was the only one who could do anything. With that performance, he should have solidified his starting job.
  • Dre Kirkpatrick redeemed himself somewhat with his late interception, but it still a very ugly performance for him. Arkansas went after him repeatedly in both the passing game and the running game, and for most of the game it was as if they wanted to force him to make a play. Unfortunately, for most of the game, he didn't do that. He was beaten badly on several passes, including an especially ugly effort on a double move route, and missed several tackles to boot. Again, he made a big play late yesterday afternoon, but in the first 57 minutes of that game he could neither cover nor tackle. Five-star recruit or not, Kirkpatrick's status as the #1 CB on the team says more of the problems we have at cornerback than anything else. He has a long way to go before he lives up to that recruiting hype.
  • Overlooked key play of the game? Mark Barron's sack of Ryan Mallett with the Hogs driving in the third quarter. It was a 2nd and 9 when Barron dragged Mallett to the ground, forcing a 3rd and 16. Arkansas went conservative with the dump-off pass from there, and while the field goal was good, Alabama lived to fight another day. Without that sack, Arkansas could have drained another couple of minutes off the clock and put a touchdown on the board, and that would have likely proved the death knell to Alabama.
  • Moving forward, games like today may have to be the way we win. Eventually the defense will come together, but that may not happen for some time, and until it does the offense is just going to have to outscore teams. And if that means getting 24 points, or 34 points, or 44 points, that's just what we'll have to do. The defense carried us through a mid-season swoon by the offense a year ago, and it looks like the offense will have to carry the defense this season.
  • For Arkansas, this game has to be considered the ultimate missed opportunity. The Hogs have Ryan Mallett in what is effectively his senior year, and loads of returning starters in what looks to be their best chance to finally move onto the national stage. With that in mind, they have #1 Alabama coming to Fayetteville, and lead for 57 minutes in a game that at times they dominated. And yet the let it all slide away, and now the odds are that they cannot even get to Atlanta. Opportunities like this rarely come along, and the fact that Arkansas let this one get away will probably haunt them for quite some time.
  • In his book, Nick Saban wrote, "When you play poorly and still win, that is the kiss of death." He reiterated that point last night in his postgame press conference. Clearly we are a team with a lot of progress to make and a brutal schedule over the next six weeks, but if we can make that progress then we have a good chance of getting to where we want to go. With that said, again, we have to make a lot of progress to get there, and the issue moving forward will be whether or not as a team we understand that and work to make that progress, or if we just become complacent and assume that what we did yesterday afternoon will be good enough. More than anything else, how we react to this game will probably define our season moving forward.
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