A few thoughts from the immediate aftermath of Alabama's 37-6 win over Tennessee:
It wouldn't quite be the same for this Alabama football team if it weren't for an ugly first half, would it? 'Bama took its usual slow start to the extreme last night in Tuscaloosa, logging what was easily the worst performance of the season in the first half against the Vols. The running game was largely bottled up, AJ McCarron was missing badly, the red zone offense stalled, the defense allowed Tauren Poole success on the ground, and a mental miscue on special teams gifted the Vols three points on a fake punt. Almost on cue, though, the team came out of the locker room reinvigorated by the disappointment of their own performance and summarily annihilated Tennessee on short notice in the second half. There has perhaps not been an Alabama team in recent memory that has followed such a predictable, routine script as this one. Disappointment early, destruction late.
AJ McCarron was arguably the biggest problem in the early going on offense and in the first half he looked like a different player than he has in recent weeks. He threw an ugly interception directly to the dropping Tennessee linebacker on the first series and made several inaccurate throws in the first half, including an easy touchdown pass to a wide open Michael Williams on second and goal that sailed over the head of the 6'6 target. With the exception of a throwing an absolute strike to Marquis Maze for 69 yards late in the first quarter, McCarron struggled to move the offense on his own in the absence of a dominant running game.
Interestingly enough, though, when Alabama came out in the second half it did so with the clear intention of throwing the football and establishing the passing game. Taking over on its own 25-yard line, McCarron led Alabama downfield for the touchdown with four big completions followed up on by a scramble for a touchdown on a busted passing play. In years past 'Bama has generally taken this situation as an opportunity to establish the running game and impose its physical will on the opponent, but last night was the opposite of the normal tendency. It was as if the coaching staff decided at halftime that we absolutely must be able to throw the football and that come hell or high water we were going to do just that in the second half. Regardless, McCarron played noticeably better in the second half, going 10-12 for 162 yards and two touchdowns.
Trent Richardson had a relatively pedestrian night by his standards and the Tennessee defense kept him in check as well as they could have reasonably expected, limiting the Pensacola native to 4.5 yards per carry and a long carry of just 16 yards. Nevertheless, Richardson picked up 110 total yards and two touchdowns even on his "slow" night and far more importantly than his raw stat line he heads into the final month of the season relatively healthy, unlike a year ago where he was a shell of himself in the stretch run due to a lingering knee sprain. He was pulled last night early in the fourth quarter when he could have padded the raw stat line in garbage time, but clearly padding statistics for a Heisman candidacy is not a real consideration in Tuscaloosa.
Eddie Lacy had another relatively easy night, picking up only seven carries and two receptions as he continues to recover from a turf toe injury. The bye week will probably do wonders for his recovery and we've been fortunate enough in recent weeks to not have to rely more on him, something that has been significantly aided by strong performances from Jalston Fowler. A fresh, healthy combination of Richardson and Lacy will be of the utmost importance in two weeks.
Anthony Steen was held out as a precaution due to the concussion he suffered last weekend against Ole Miss and related or not the offensive line sputtered early. Alfred McCullough, however, played a solid game in his absence and it was difficult to point to him as being a demonstrable weakness, though it was strange to see the running game focusing so much on the right side of the offensive line as opposed to running behind Barrett Jones. Pass protection, however, held up well and the running game came around in the second half. And speaking of Jones, he has solidified himself as a standout left tackle and has to be significantly boosting his NFL prospects with his play in recent weeks. William Vlachos had his weekly holding call, but Chance Warmack avoided his obligatory false start penalty.
Darius Hanks registered three catches for 55 yards on the night, but don't let the zero yards after catch fool you. He worked himself nearly wide open all three times only to be on the receiving end of bad throws from McCarron, and the fact that he hauled in those catches at all speaks volumes about his play. He looked a bit off for a couple of weeks after returning from the two-game suspension to start the season, but he has looked good in recent weeks.
Tauren Poole had some success against the 'Bama run defense, and while not wild in nature it was somewhat reminiscent of last year when Alabama limited the run as opposed to outright stopping it. Give the Tennessee offensive line credit for putting together another respectable performance to follow up their showing against LSU and for much of the night 'Bama was missing the upfield surge that has powered the run defense this season.
A few snafus in the run defense notwithstanding, however, overall it was another dominating performance from the defense. The Vols managed only six first downs all night (one of which came via penalty and another on a fake punt), and on the whole had only 155 yards of total offense on 50 plays while never penetrating the 'Bama red zone. Matt Simms was totally ineffective, and outside of one catch-and-run on fourth down Da'Rick Rogers was almost entirely shut out of the action.
Dont'a Hightower had one of his best performances last night, finishing up with seven tackles, an interception, a sack, and three vicious hits on Matt Simms. His return to prominence has been impressive to watch and in many ways he has transformed his style of play after his knee injury. He doesn't have the quickness that he had as a freshman, but he has gotten a good bit of it back and he has bulked up and gotten stronger at the point of attack. With a better understanding of the scheme and a relatively polished repertoire of moves as a pass rusher, Hightower is now playing the best football of his 'Bama career and with little doubt is solidifying himself as a top choice in the NFL Draft. Barring another injury, you can add Hightower along with Trent Richardson as guaranteed early entrants into the NFL Draft.
Courtney Upshaw was in typical beast mode last night and was again a disruptive force on the defensive side of the ball, racking up seven tackles to go along with a sack and a forced fumble, despite sporting what looked like a queen size mattress around his left arm. Combined, he and Hightower form the backbone of the front seven, and they have breathed new life into the Alabama pass rush. Look for him to make big money next April along with Richardson and Hightower. It's easy to lament on how the injuries to Hightower, Upshaw, and Barron limited this defense a year ago, but realistically without those injuries all of those guys would be in the NFL right now, and the pains of their absence a year ago is now paying off as combined they carry this defense into elite stratosphere.
While Derek Dooley is considered a Nick Saban disciple, he coached the second half last night like he graduated magna cum laude from the Lane Kiffin School of Moral Victories. Trailing by two touchdowns late in the third quarter and facing a third and long, Dooley ran the ball right into the line of scrimmage. The following possession, trailing by three touchdowns, Dooley chose to run the football all three times before a Tennessee punt. An interception ensued on the following play, so how does Dooley end the game? Burning the redshirt of a true freshman quarterback so he could come in and hand off to the tailback for four straight plays. Admittedly Matt Simms is not much of a quarterback, but that play selection is indefensible for anyone legitimately looking to win, and it became clear in the second half last night that Dooley had thrown in the towel and was just hoping to shorten the game to get the hell out of Tuscaloosa.
In other quick thoughts, Alex Watkins went out with what looked like a wrist injury and apparently did not return, though I've seen no further update on him. Cyrus Kouandjio suffered some sort of leg injury right after he went in, and while he tried to play through it Tyler Love came in for him a couple of plays later. Cade Foster might need to get concussed more often. The punting game still is not getting it done. Jerrell Harris has become a key cog of this defense and is an every down contributor. Did not see much of Quinton Dial yesterday. Bradley Sylve has been practicing at cornerback in recent weeks and was in the second cornerbacks grouping yesterday during pre-game warm-ups. Chris Jordan got into the game yesterday and saw some action. Christion Jones keeps getting meaningful snaps on offense without getting the ball. Brent Calloway did not dress out last night.
All in all, despite an ugly first half, in general everything went exactly as planned last night in Tuscaloosa. 'Bama cruised to an easy victory and remained healthy in the process, and in doing so completed the final leg of the three game stretch against clearly inferior opponents. Yes the wins seemed relatively obligatory, but as 'Bama learned the hard way a year ago you have to win those games in the interim for the big games at the end to mean anything, and unlike last year Alabama took care of business this time around.