FAYETTEVILLE, AR - SEPTEMBER 15: Christion Jones #22 of the Alabama Crimson Tide runs the ball against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Razorback Stadium on September 15, 2012 in Fayetteville, Arkansas. The Crimson Tide defeated the Razorbacks 52-0. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
A few initial impressions from the early aftermath of Alabama's 52-0 victory over Arkansas:
Given the lopsided final score, it's somewhat difficult to make many meaningful observations under the circumstances. At best, you can really just go back to when the game was actually in doubt, try to glean something of note from that relatively short period of time, and then try to make some sense of the reserves from their garbage time performances. Let's start from the beginning and try to figure out how things became so lopsided.
In hindsight, the first half was actually surprisingly close given the final score. The first quarter was a sloppy affair by both teams in nearly all phases of the game, featuring three-and-outs, botched snaps, dropped passes, missed throws, major penalties, and doinked field goals. Alabama had a 7-0 lead at the end of the first quarter, but that lead was only due to the misfire of Arkansas long snapper Alan D'Appollonio, and in general 'Bama looked lackluster in the opening quarter. The offense went three-and-out twice and managed only 47 yards of total offense on four possessions. Defensively, 'Bama allowed Arkansas to drive the length of the field, fueled in large part by costly penalties, and the drive only stalled when Brandon Allen missed a wide open Chris Gragg, who had ran free down the seam after a coverage bust in the defensive backfield. Brandon Mitchell was being used as a running threat, and Arkansas was having some success with the zone read and the option game.
Offensively, the second quarter didn't start much better, after Alabama failed to move the chains after having a 2nd a 3 inside the Arkansas 35-yard line. Eddie Lacy was stuffed at the line of scrimmage by Alonzo Highsmith on second down, and Kevin Norwood dropped what should have been an easy conversion on third down. Cade Foster, however, hit a 51-yard field goal attempt perfectly in the rain, and despite the relatively poor play Alabama had a 10-0 lead on the road.
Defensive struggles continued on the following Arkansas drive, with the Hogs quickly picking up two first downs and moving the ball into Alabama territory, and at this point it still looked very much like a competitive contest. However, on the 2nd and 7 at the Alabama 42, Allen passed up an open Knile Davis in the right flat and instead tried to throw the deep crossing route. Vinny Sunseri executed the shifting zone perfectly, passing off the other crossing receiver and quickly retreating back toward the sideline, which put him in place for an easy interception. After Sunseri's interception, Arkansas simply imploded. The Alabama offense finally took off, another touchdown went up on the board, a sack and another interception of Allen followed, and Eddie Lacy carried it in from two yards out.
At this point Alabama had only mustered one particularly successful drive and the defense had allowed Arkansas to penetrate into Alabama territory twice, but 'Bama nevertheless sported a 24-0 lead due to the botched snap and the Allen interceptions. In general, the first half was played relatively close, but Alabama took advantage of Arkansas turnovers led to a lopsided scoreboard.
From there, there is no use in sugarcoating the obvious, Arkansas quit in the second half, just as Tyler Wilson accused his teammates of doing in the postgame interview. Exactly how badly did they quit in the second half? Consider it this way, the second and third-team Alabama units had far more on-field success than did the starters. Obviously Alabama is a very good football team, but no one is that that good.
Looking at the overall performance in the competitive stages of the game, the Alabama offensive line played much better than it did a week ago against Western Kentucky. The running game was never really dominant with Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon, but it was sufficient and very effective in goal line situations. Lacy, in fact, looked better than he has since he first injured his foot against Arkansas a year ago.
Alonzo Highsmith and Tenarius Wright were largely rendered non-factors. Pass protection outside at tackle was still somewhat spotty, and D.J. Fluker in particular is still struggling with speedy edge rushers who crash down the line on inside moves. Interior line play, however, was strong across the board, and Cyrus Kouandjio held up well at left tackle in his first start in a hostile environment. Kelly Johnson did some good things as a blocker at both fullback and H-back.
The passing game with A.J. McCarron was largely successful, even if not overly explosive. McCarron got the ball out much quicker yesterday than against Western Kentucky, and generally had a strong day distributing the football to numerous receivers. Amari Cooper put any ill effects of his foot injury aside and had his best day to yet, and the same goes for Christion Jones. Kevin Norwood never really got involved after his early drop, but he commanded a good deal of attention from the Arkansas secondary, and it is now clear that opposing defenses view him as a legitimate threat in the passing game.
Defensively, the pass rush never really materialized while the game was still in doubt, though that was largely by design more than anything else. The game plan yesterday was generally to rush three and four defenders while forcing Brandon Allen to throw into heavy zones and he struggled mightily in attempting to do so. He missed a handful of open throws early, and then simply self-destructed after Vinny Sunseri intercepted him on the Alabama side of the field in the shifting zone. Alabama wanted to force him to make difficult throws into tight zones, and Allen simply could not get the job done.
The run defense was as stout as it was a year ago. Jesse Williams was absolutely dominant at nose guard, and he lived in the Arkansas backfield all afternoon. The defensive ends held strong at the point of attack, and from there the play from the interior linebackers controlled the running game, with Nico Johnson, C.J. Mosley, and Trey DePriest combining for twelve tackles. Williams is clearly the one who holds it all together, but with him healthy and in the line-up the run defense looked outstanding.
The defensive backfield was somewhat of a mixed bag. DeMarcus Milliner was outstanding, further cementing notions that he will be a three-year player, Deion Belue continues to progress significantly, and Robert Lester was solid as always. Outside of those three, however, there were some issues, particularly in nickel and dime packages. Vinny Sunseri had the big interception, but also had a couple of coverage breakdowns and one missed tackle, and Nick Perry did nothing to stand out in pass coverage. Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix had the best day of the three, but even he was somewhat quiet outside of his interception. John Fulton picked up significant time at cornerback in the second half, but he alternated between solid and sporadic against an overwhelmed passing game. Obviously none of it was a concern yesterday, but a critical eye would say there were opportunities for a team with a bona fide passing game to take advantage of on the back end.
In other quick hitters, Jeoffrey Pagan played a lot of snaps with the first team yesterday. Cade Foster may be the most improved player on the team. Blake Sims played well in the back-up role yesterday; he has improved in the passing game, and clearly he can run the zone read. T.J. Yeldon has received all of the hype, but Kenyan Drake has been highly impressive in his own right, great speed to the corner and several impressive open-field moves. Landon Collins did some good things on special teams. How in the world do you fumble eight times in one game? Game roster was practically like an A-Day game yesterday afternoon, anyone and everyone who made the trip played. Marvin Shinn and Danny Woodson, Jr. both had catches yesterday afternoon, and walk-on tailback Ben Howell got some carries. True freshmen Geno Smith, Denzel Devall, Dillon Lee, and Darren Lake all saw time. Tyler Hayes and Cyrus Jones and also played yesterday, so there goes those redshirts. The game participation chart shows true freshman quarterback Alec Morris as playing, but if he actually saw the field then I missed it; in all likelihood it's just a typo.
All in all, a very strange day yesterday in Fayetteville, clearly with the degree of the end result being what no one could have expected. The final scoreboard is nothing to overly obsess over, and clearly at some point in the weeks ahead this 'Bama team will be legitimately tested by better opponents. Nevertheless, Alabama came into this season with two key games in the opening three weeks, and now stands 3-0 with blowout wins over both Michigan and Arkansas. Not a flawless team by any stretch, of course, but 'Bama has successfully navigated the early obstacles and can now focus on correcting the few issues it has before the stretch run takes over in full force in mid-October.