TUSCALOOSA, AL - SEPTEMBER 17: Running back Trent Richardson #3 of the Alabama Crimson Tide finds a hole for a first down against North Texas in the first quarter on September 17, 2011 at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Butch Dill/Getty Images)
A few early thoughts from the initial aftermath of Alabama's 41-0 win last night over North Texas:
As expected, 'Bama went through North Texas with no real issue on Saturday night and at no point did the Mean Green ever mount a serious challenge. To be sure, though, no sane person ever thought Alabama would be legitimately tested, and the biggest concern throughout was clearly injuries with Arkansas a mere six days away. To that end, fortunately, all seemingly went well. Robert Lester went to the locker room in the second half with a back injury, but in the postgame press conference Nick Saban referred to it as mere spasms and did not indicate it was a serious injury, and beyond Lester there were few reports of any other injuries. Courtney Upshaw (hip) and William Vlachos (foot) fought through some minor injuries, but in both cases the ailments were pre-existing and on the whole 'Bama seemingly avoided any serious, long-term injuries last night.
A.J. McCarron started at quarterback once again and aside from one fumble he generally played well enough. As was the case against Penn State, it was not an outstanding performance but a steady one nevertheless, completing over 70% of his passes while averaging over nine yards per attempt with no interceptions. Phillip Sims saw action as well and admittedly posted a solid raw stat line, but the offense somewhat stalled when he was on the field and while he didn't play poorly it did not seem that he played quite as well as McCarron. To the extent that Sims could have narrowed the gap on McCarron after the egg Penn State laid against Temple earlier in the afternoon, by all accounts it was a missed opportunity and McCarron likely further solidified his hold on the starting job. McCarron would probably have to play very poorly against Arkansas for Sims to see meaningful playing time against the Hogs.
The offensive line continues to largely be a mess, as inconsistency and constant personnel shuffling have become the norm. William Vlachos continues to be limited with lingering foot issues, and no less than five different personnel groupings took the field on Saturday night, though it was largely to no avail. If the Penn State game represented a slight step forward for the offensive line, consider the performance last night against North Texas a moderate step back. The running game remained inconsistent and for the first time this year pass protection became an issue. It's easy to criticize the staff for the constant shuffling, but in reality this staff has always wanted a stable personnel grouping before, and the shuffling now is almost certainly based on the overall ineffectiveness of the line as a whole. The staff would clearly prefer to have a set five, but continued struggles make that unfeasible and therefore the shuffling becomes a necessity as the staff searches for a solution to the offensive line woes. Regardless of exactly how the personnel shakes out up front, I'll reiterate my previous comments that 'Bama will have to play better up front if it legitimately expects to reach New Orleans.
The running game posted some eye-popping final statistics thanks to several big runs by Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy, but not surprisingly given the inconsistent play of the offensive line the running game actually struggled at times throughout the night against an undersized and overmanned defensive front seven for the Mean Green. Once again it was only in the second half that the running game took off, and in the first half the 'Bama running game produced only one run of note on thirteen carries and in fact more than half of those first half carries went for three yards or less. Clearly Richardson and Lacy can make big things happen on the ground if given the opportunity, but the offensive line has to be more effective up front for 'Bama to establish the running game on a consistent basis and get the most out of its talented duo of tailbacks.
The wide receiver corps is taking on a different look than it did a year ago with Julio Jones in the fold, but for the most part it was once again effective against the Mean Green. For better or for worse a physical presence seems unlikely to emerge unless Duron Carter gets cleared, but in the absence of a physical presence what we have seen is great depth of quality pass catchers who use their speed to their advantage. Darius Hanks made an impact in his season debut last night, and Kenny Bell continues to impress as a redshirt sophomore, though admittedly DeAndrew White barely had his name called. The lack of size may be an issue later in the year against physical SEC secondaries, but for now the wide receiver corps is holding up well enough.
Whatever issues the Tide may have on offense, few concerns exist on the defensive side of the ball, and once again the 'Bama defense posted a dominating performance. The lack of sacks and turnovers is a bit unsettling (zero of either on the night), but despite that the defense was almost an impenetrable wall. North Texas had no real success on the ground, and through the air they completed roughly only 33% of their passes and averaged a meager three yards per passing attempt. We have not seen many big negative plays to date, but by the same token no one the UA defense has faced so far has shown any real ability to actually move the football with any degree of consistency. Outside of junk points -- i.e. the interception return against Kent State and the garbage time touchdown by Penn State -- the 'Bama defense has allowed only three points through three games, highly impressive regardless of the quality of competition.
In other quick thoughts, Christion Jones may be the biggest surprise to date of the 2011 recruiting class. Kevin Norwood did not have his name called all night that I remembered. Jerrell Harris is playing his best football to date at Sam. Placekicking was an adventure last night, and once again we probably have to hope no game comes down to a kick. Trey DePriest and Vinnie Sunseri stood out last night on both defense and special teams. Still no Wildcat formation yet this season, though we've seen the Pistol on occasion. Dont'a Hightower moved well in space last night for the first time in a long time. Josh Chapman continues to develop and is off to a strong start to his senior season. Damion Square looks fully recovered from his torn ACL in 2009. Jesse Williams is likely the best defensive lineman on the roster, and he probably still has more potential remaining than any other meaningful contributor on the line. William Vlachos was actually in a boot for some of pre-game warm-ups. Blake Sims saw some late action at tailback, but one would think more is in store for him later.
All in all, a bit of a ho-hum affair last night in Tuscaloosa, more obligatory than exciting or insightful. 'Bama likely accomplished just about everything the UA coaching staff wanted, except for the aforementioned offensive line issues, but in reality we didn't learn anything more about the Crimson Tide last night than we already knew. At some point you have to step up the level of competition and see the response, and for 'Bama that day is now only six days away. We'll find out just what this Tide team is made of next weekend against Arkansas.