A few thoughts from the early aftermath of Alabama's 27-11 win over Penn State:
Penn State provided the first major test of the 2011 season, and in general Alabama passed that test with flying colors yesterday afternoon. All of the concerns over the weather turned out to be unfounded as a clean track and sunshine greeted the Tide in Happy Valley, and after Alabama fought through an early surge by Penn State, 'Bama was never seriously tested in the second half. Making matters better there were no reports of any serious injuries. Any time you go into a hostile environment to play a ranked team with an inexperienced quarterback at the helm and you still walk away with a relatively easy victory, no fan base can realistically expect much more. One can bicker about a few areas of the team, but on the whole this road trip could not have reasonably ended any better than it did.
Nick Saban will continue to say that the competition at quarterback is ongoing, but barring a future disaster A.J. McCarron all but solidified his hold on the starting job yesterday afternoon. His performance was by no means spectacular, but it was a solid, smart performance that stayed within the confines of the system and largely stayed away from dumb decisions, which is exactly what the coaching staff wants in its signal caller, and which undoubtedly will earn a great deal of respect from his teammates. Clearly he has room for improvement and development, but given that he led this team on the road and played a solid game in a tough environment, for all intents and purposes this competition has concluded unless McCarron falls apart later in the season. He had the opportunity to seize the starting job yesterday and he did just that. While Phillip Sims will see more meaningful playing time against North Texas, it looks to be unlikely that the coaching staff will reverse its decision after yesterday, and doing so would even be more difficult to defend logically. For better or for worse, cue the inevitable Phillip Sims transfer rumors, which will probably have far more of a valid, underlying basis than many want to believe.
The offensive line struggled greatly in the first half against Penn State, and unlike last week their struggles cannot be attributed to the anomaly of playing an undersized defensive line. The early going was plagued by missed assignments and being outright overpowered by the PSU defensive line, which most thought to be relatively weak prior to the opening kick, and it was only late in the game when the will of the Nittany Lions had been broken that this unit really had some success. Most of Trent Richardson's yards were after contact (several runs were almost all due to his efforts alone), and while Penn State had no sacks, McCarron was under duress many times and several passes were batted down at the line of scrimmage. Moving forward, if 'Bama wants to get to New Orleans, the offensive line simply has to play better, and if these struggles continue personnel changes up front are imminent.
Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy had impressive stat lines to finish the day, but many of those yards came late and their raw numbers largely obscure what was an inconsistent and ineffective rushing attack for much of the first three quarters. With Richardson in particular, many yards came after contact and he was blown up several times in the backfield after miscues up front allowed Penn State defenders through unabated. The five touchdowns on the season paints a rosy picture, but the 3.79 yards per carry average he has through two games is telling regarding the struggles the running game has had early this season. Eddie Lacy has been impressive in more limited duty, but on the whole 'Bama has still struggled to run the football until late in games. Moving forward, Alabama cannot keep waiting until the late third quarter to find a consistent rushing attack.
The wide receiver corps had an eventful, and largely unexpected, performance. The last-minute loss of Duron Carter was wholly unexpected, Marquis Maze never really got going, and after an impressive showing against Kent State DeAndrew White did not make a single catch. In their absence, however, Kenny Bell and Brandon Gibson had key grabs, and Kevin Norwood had his most impressive showing to date in crimson. The lack of a physical presence in the rotation looks to be a legitimate concern, and to that end Maze struggled yesterday with the increased attention he received from a solid defensive backfield. Kind of a mixed bag for the wide receiver corps on the whole, but even so enough was done to help McCarron and secure the victory, even if several long-term questions remain.
Michael Williams had a strong showing yesterday with three catches for 34 yards and a key touchdown early in the game. Williams has been something of a tease the past two seasons in the passing game with his great size and solid athleticism, but he played well yesterday and he looks to have a very important role as a physical presence in the passing game with the undersized wide receiver corps. Keep your eye on him moving forward, he could be a key cog in the Tide passing game in the weeks ahead.
The overall play of the defensive line remained strong thanks to their stout showing against the run, but once again the pass rush is almost non-existent. 'Bama did not record a single sack yesterday, and through two games the Tide has only two sacks on approximately 95 passing attempts by opposing quarterbacks. The pass defense as a whole has remained very strong -- PSU was only 12-37 for 144 yards -- but the lack of a pass rush baffles given the athleticism in the front seven, and has to be considered one of the disappointments of the early season. Rushing the quarterback hasn't resulted in any ill effects to date, but that could be a very different story against Arkansas and Tyler Wilson.
Jesse Williams has to be considered the most improved player on the team after an unimpressive spring, and he is arguably our most effective defensive lineman at this point. He plays literally every position on the line, remains in the game in nearly all situations, follows the football consistently, and has proven himself to be difficult to block one-on-one. The defensive line as a whole has been a pleasant surprise to date, but Williams might be the standout of that group, and with two full years ahead of him the potential for him is almost unlimited. He played like an overrated side show in the spring, but he has played like a legitimate star in the fall.
Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw have not made the impacts that most expected rushing the passer, but the entire linebacker corps looked strong against the run yesterday, and overall it was a strong showing. C.J.Mosley continues to progress and is noticeably more physical than a year ago, Jerrell Harris played arguably his best game yesterday, and Nico Johnson was strong in run support as usual. Even with the pass rush still a work in progress, the linebacker corps continues to excel.
DeQuan Menzie was picked on at times yesterday and had trouble locating the football, but much of that had more to do with the fact that he was routinely matched against Penn State's best wide receiver, Derek Moye, than meaningful mistakes on the part of Menzie, and in fairness to him he was in perfect position on the Mark Barron interception. The rest of the defensive backfield looked rock solid. Robert Lester seemed to always be near the football, Mark Barron was the leader of the group, Dre Kirkpatrick and DeMarcus Milliner were both solid at corner, and as a whole the unit looked very strong. Arkansas will be the test of the season, but this group looks primed to live up to high expectations.
Arguably the two key plans in this game both came on special teams. Brad Smelley's fake punt imploded when he inexplicably cut back inside with an acre of green grass outside, but a very generous spot averted the disaster, and with Penn State looking to pin 'Bama back deep in the third quarter and hopefully get good field position (to which they could then fight for a one-possession game), Marquis Maze largely put the game away with his 44-yard punt return back to mid-field. The kicking game has not been good to date and had its fair share of struggles yesterday, but even so 'Bama logged a couple of big special teams plays yesterday afternoon in Happy Valley.
And speaking of the kicking game, all the world's jewels for a decent punter. Cody Mandell was not just inconsistent yesterday, he was simply bad, averaging only 37.2 yards on six punts. Likewise, for all of the hype over the strength of Cade Foster's leg, on six kick-offs yesterday he averaged only 62 yards per kick and didn't record a single touchback. Jeremy Shelley was solid as usual in the short kicking game, but the rest of the kicking is just plain bad at this point with no real signs of imminent improvement.
In other quick thoughts, Trey DePriest and Vinnie Sunseri continue to be special teams standouts, and the kick return defense looks very strong despite Foster's short kicks. Christion Jones played again yesterday in limited duty, as did Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix. Will Lowery looks to have solidified his role as the dime back. Dont'a Hightower looks to be a full-time defensive end in obvious passing situations. DeMarcus Milliner looked very tentative in his only kickoff return. Nick Gentry actually saw a couple of snaps yesterday playing zero technique in short-yardage situations. Brandon Lewis, a week after having moved from defensive end, saw time yesterday in key situations as a run blocker at tight end and as a leading fullback. Did not see much of Phelon Jones yesterday, which was somewhat surprising.
All in all, again, yesterday went as well as 'Bama could have reasonably expected. By no means was it a perfect performance, but perfection is more of an abstract ideal than a concrete possibility, and no rational observer could have any serious complaints over what happened yesterday. Clearly Alabama will have to continue to improve and develop as the season progresses, but for the time being the Tide is 2-0 and healthy with a glorified scrimmage on the horizon this Saturday as a final tune-up for the showdown against Arkansas, and that is exactly where the coaching staff wanted this team to be all along.