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A few initial impressions from the early aftermath of Alabama's 24-7 victory over Mississippi State:
Style points and scorched earth it was not, but nevertheless a reasonably comfortable victory in Starkville that never really saw the Tide legitimate challenged. The concerns regarding mental hangovers turned out to be largely unwarranted, and for all of the injuries last weekend against LSU nearly everyone took the field. There are some underlying issues which will be addressed below, but on the whole 24-7 road wins in SEC play are not to be taken for granted, and with both Auburn and Tennessee getting thrashed while significant help was given to 'Bama in the BCS race, consider yesterday to have gone as well as could have been reasonably expected.
Trent Richardson had his usual star performance. Though he averaged only 4.0 yards per carry and was generally limited from big runs by the Mississippi State defense, Richardson had little to work with and turned in an impressive performance despite the lack of the gaudy stat line. As usual he also added value in the passing game, and his juke of the Mississippi State defender might be the best open field move we've seen by a 'Bama back in some time. When watching Richardson play, regardless of the raw stat line at the end of the day, the ultimate takeaway is always that he is simply the best player on the field, and that was true once again last night in Starkville.
Interesting thoughts: One week after doing anything and everything but giving Trent Richardson the football when it mattered most, Jim McElwain and company called on Richardson for a career high number of carries, and when needing to close out the game late, 'Bama put Richardson in the wildcat and went to him on nine consecutive carries. Think the coaching staff realizes they utterly botched the second half last weekend against LSU, relying on McCarron and trick plays while Richardson was turned into a glorified spectator? It's one hell of a coincidence if they didn't arrive at that conclusion.
As an aside, is Trent Richardson once again a legitimate Heisman contender? With Andrew Luck going down hard in Palo Alto and having a middling performance in his sole appearance on the national stage and Kellen Moore falling to the hands of TCU, exactly who, if not Richardson, is the frontrunner? Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden has gotten some recognition, but most consider him just another system product and Heisman voters have been harsher on system products in recent years than most think; same goes for Case Keenum, and beyond those two the field is relatively weak. Richardson probably still needs a big performance against Auburn, but it's not unreasonable to think he's legitimately back in this race. One thing can be said for certain in hindsight: Had 'Bama won last weekend and / or the coaching staff earned their paychecks, his name would be all but etched on the trophy.
AJ McCarron unfortunately continues his regression, and he followed up his costly meltdown against LSU with another poor performance. With Trent Richardson and a stifling defense leading this team, McCarron needs to do little more than simply manage the game, of which involves doing three things on a consistent basis: (1) throw the ball effectively on first down to prevent opposing defenses from keying the run, (2) moving the chains on third down in the short and intermediate situations via the passing game, and (3) protecting the football. Of those three things, McCarron has done none of them the past two weeks. In Starkville last night he allowed State to escape without punishment loading the box on early downs with run blitzes, was a key part of why 'Bama went 2-11 on third down, and threw yet another ugly, indefensible interception. If 'Bama is going to have any real chance at actually winning a national championship, as opposed to simply earning a BCS Championship Game berth by beating a couple of middling teams while catching some breaks on matters beyond their control, McCarron simply has to play much better than he has the past two weekends.
Truth be told, it's at least somewhat tempting to say that Phillip Sims should be given an opportunity with McCarron's continued struggles. No, Sims did not play particularly well earlier in the year, but then again McCarron is not playing nearly as well right now as he did in late September, and in some situations it would be conceivable that Sims could get an opportunity. Given the current timing, though -- road games against Mississippi State and Auburn -- it's hard to see how that could actually come to fruition in the short-term barring either injury or an absolute implosion by McCarron (and we're not there yet anyway). In any event, McCarron is treading water at this point, and for all of the obligatory transfer discussions regarding Sims, he'd be a fool not to stay and take another shot at the starting job this upcoming spring.
Barrett Jones did not play, as expected, and was a bit gimpy during warm-ups. Even so, the offensive line generally did well enough in his absence, and in particular the line held up well in pass protection. Alfred McCullough is inherently a concern at left tackle simply because he lacks the length you ideally prefer at the tackle position, but he played well and the MSU pass rush was stymied, registering no sacks and only two hurries on 24 passing attempts. Run blocking wasn't exceptional, but wasn't as bad as the yards per carry averages would indicate. No running game is going to have any great amounts of success consistently facing eight and nine man fronts matched with aggressive run blitzes. Run blocking could have been better, but the bigger issue was the lack of an effective passing game simply hindered success on the ground.
And speaking of the struggles in the passing game, it would be intellectually dishonest not to lay some of the blame for that on the wide receiver corps, which has struggled greatly in recent weeks. Marquis Maze couldn't get anything going last night, Darius Hanks missed the entire game, and beyond those two we simply have a melange of interchangeable but not particular effective parts and pieces; players who may make the occasional catch here and there, but who generally struggle to get separation and catch the football cleanly, which on how the whole makes for inconsistent at best play outside. Admittedly, while it's easy to air the AJ McCarron grievances -- and no, struggles in the wide receiver corps have nothing to do with McCarron's new-found tendency to throw strikes to players wearing different colored jerseys -- but he doesn't exactly have an easy job in terms of distributing the football to his receivers. No rational observer legitimately thought Alabama would be able to find an adequate short-term replacement for Julio Jones, but I tend to think the transition has been more difficult than many expected. In hindsight, the Duron Carter saga has proven very costly.
The defense was suffocating as ever, and while the offense (sans Trent Richardson) and the special teams would get middling and failing grades, respectively, this defense would detonate the grading curve, and given the level of play its nearly impossible to heap too high of praise. On the whole, 'Bama gave up only 131 yards of total offense, 12 rushing yards, only nine first downs, and held MSU to only 3-16 on third downs. Add in five sacks, eight TFL's, five PBU's, two quarterback hurries and only one drive of longer than 22 yards and you have the epitome of dominance. The only semi-critical note that can be made is the lack of turnovers, but in the larger context that is nitpicking to the utmost degree. Regardless of how the BCS melodrama plays out, you might as well just enjoy watching this defense play the next six weeks; odds are you'll never witness a unit this good again.
Special teams is simply bad all the way around and for the time being we are generating nothing positive in that phase of the game. The placekicking issues have received the overwhelming majority of the attention, but placekicking is just one relatively small subset of the special teams whole, and such focus on placekicking largely ignores that we are almost equally as bad at everything else. Placekicking is bad, punting is ineffective, the return game has stalled, and we cannot defend against kick returns. Placing all of the blame on special teams coach Bobby Williams is somewhat inappropriate because Saban has made it clear in the past that his staff views special teams as a group effort, but in any event it has become clear that structural changes need to be made with how we approach this aspect of the game. Given how length and depth of the struggles on special teams, it seems exceedingly naive to think a personnel change here or there will be the solution.
Cade Foster was given an opportunity for a 49-yard field goal late in the first quarter, a move that generated much derision after the kick sailed wide right. Frustrating as though his woes are, however, the decision itself is far more defensible, and necessary, than most assume. Foster may be a poor kicker, but the harsh truth remains that he is our only viable option for converting a long field goal opportunity, and while we'd like to think that another game won't come down to such a kick, the reality is that scenario is a legitimate possibility and we have to be prepared accordingly. Further changes can be made in the offseason, but for the next six weeks 'Bama will sink or swim with Foster on long kicks, and to that end you have to keep trotting him out there -- especially when it involves games like this in which we're likely to win regardless -- and hoping that he can develop and improve. In his defense, at least, he did strike the ball cleanly and the mechanics were better than usual, so hopefully that is a sign of slight progress.
Injuries did prove somewhat costly last night, and its clear from the aftermath that the physical game took its toll over the course of sixty minutes. Jesse Williams is the biggest concern after leaving with a right shoulder injury, watching most of the second half wearing a jacket with a sling around his arm. Quinton Dial played well given the increased responsibility, but any time you see a sling there is legitimate cause for concern; hopefully Williams can be back for the Iron Bowl, but he may be out longer. Meanwhile, Darius Hanks missed the entire game with what looked like a sprained ankle when his foot got partially stuck in the ground while a Mississippi State defender went low for the tackle. Ankle sprains can run the gauntlet in terms of severity and recovery, but as with Williams hopefully Hanks can return for the trip to Auburn. Also, Vinny Sunseri was knocked out cold momentarily after leading with the helmet while delivering a vicious block in an attempt to spring Marquis Maze in the return game. Obviously you hope for the quick return, but given what we now know about the dangers of concussions, no one should complain if it's some time before Sunseri returns.
In other quick thoughts, Eddie Lacy is looking healthier and moved better last night than in recent weeks. Nick Gentry continues to be the unsung hero of the defensive line. DeQuan Menzie played very well and was highly physical in coverage. Add Chris Relf to the rather long list of quarterbacks this 'Bama defense has sacrificed to the Football Gods this season. Kevin Norwood had two good catches last night, so hopefully he is starting to come around. Chris Underwood has been nearly an every down player in recent weeks. Another slow start for 'Bama offensively, going three and out on its opening two drives, combining for four yards on six plays. All of the running out of the shotgun should probably be curtailed, especially given McCarron's relative immobility and 'Bama's struggles throwing the football. Dee Hart did not make the trip to Starkville, one week after dressing out against LSU, and his status remains uncertain.
All in all a relatively solid showing against the Bullies, not the most aesthetically pleasing to be sure but functionally sufficient nevertheless, and it should be noted that ugly performances in Starkville have been a longstanding tradition for Alabama. Overall mental toughness should be applauded given the quick turnaround from last weekend against LSU, but on the other hand some underlying substantive flaws were clearly on display last night, namely poor special teams and an ineffective passing game, and those must be at least partially remedied if 'Bama is legitimately going to win a national title. Either way, merely winning was enough last night, and with two other key BCS contenders falling hard no one should be complaining that an SEC road trip resulted in a 24-7 win with a chance to fight another day. With an obligatory affair this upcoming weekend in Tuscaloosa against Georgia Southern, for now this effectively becomes a one game season where the Crimson Tide seeks redress for its 2010 grievances down on the Plains, and beyond that all this 'Bama team can do is hope all of the cards beyond the Tide's control come up crimson.