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'Bama moves to 5-0, but victory over Ole Miss comes hard and at a high price.
A few initial impressions from the early aftermath of Alabama's 33-14 victory over Ole Miss:
No one would have expected it six weeks ago, but it finally took Ole Miss, doing something Michigan and Arkansas could not do, to test the Tide for four quarters. Hugh Freeze has one of the toughest coaching jobs in the conference, but he has done well to date and deserves credit for having Ole Miss ready to play last night. The outcome was never seriously in doubt, but this was a far cry from the 52-7 romp a year ago in Oxford. Alabama got the win, but had to fight hard in doing so and victory came at a high price with numerous injuries being sustained.
Offensively, the 33 points largely obfuscates the on-field struggles. Seven of those points came on a Christion Jones kickoff return for a touchdown, and seven more came from a short-field after a DeMarcus Milliner interception. The easy points notwithstanding, it was a struggle for the offense, which gained only 305 yards on 64 plays and which produced only one play in excess of 20 yards. Given the struggles of the Ole Miss defense, it was reasonably expected that the Alabama offense would have its way last night, but that simply did not happen when toe met leather.
The biggest culprit behind the offensive struggles was the running game, which was consistently slowed by the Ole Miss front. Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon combined to average only 4.0 yards per carry, and with almost no explosive plays the running game was essentially three yards and a cloud of dust. The undersized Ole Miss front was aggressive with stunts and slants, and it paid off more often than not. Despite their size advantage, the Alabama offensive line was never able to impose its will, and the tailbacks misread a handful of plays where it looked like there was an opportunity for a big gain. Give proper credit to the Ole Miss defense, but even so it was an ugly performance for the Alabama ground game.
With the running game slowed, the burden was shifted to the passing game, which responded with efficiency but not explosiveness. AJ McCarron completed 73% of his passes and didn't turn the ball over, yet threw for only 180 yards on 30 passing attempts (6.0 yards per attempt), and generated a long completion of only 17 yards. The end result was basically the type of passing game that many have criticized Alabama for over the years, one which relies heavily on short throws to the boundaries and crossing routes underneath, but one that does not routinely produce big plays or consistently have success throwing the football down the field. That's not necessarily a bad thing, mind you, but when the running game slows the passing game doesn't have an explosive element as a complement, so the end result becomes that the offense has to slowly and methodically move the chains on long drives to produce points, and that can be difficult to do on a consistent basis.
Red zone performance garnered a good bit of attention after the Florida Atlantic game, and that emphasis is likely to continue with Alabama drives stalling out four times last night inside the Ole Miss 25-yard line. Any criticism to that effect, however, is somewhat misplaced, because it ignores the fact that the Alabama didn't play particularly well regardless of field position. Simply put, nothing magical is going to happen just because you move the football deep into your opponent's territory. Red zone notwithstanding, Alabama simply needs to play better as a whole on the offensive side.
Fortunately, however, the offensive issues didn't permeate to the defense, which arguably had one of its best showings on the year. The 14 points allowed are a season high, but don't let that deceive, the overall performance was strong. Ole Miss created issues, as expected, with their up tempo offense, but generally the Alabama defense held strong at the point of attack, slowed the running game, contained Bo Wallace in the pocket, and waited for the football to be forced into heavy coverage and pounced on the opportunities as they were presented. The general lack of experience at several positions on the defensive side was a legitimate concern coming into last night, but the unit as a whole responded to the challenge and played beyond their years, despite the complex and up tempo nature of the Ole Miss offense.
Having said that, though, if the offensive issues continue, performances like the defense posted last night will have to become the norm moving forward. The hope coming into the season, and even into last night, was that the offense could carry the load, light up the scoreboard, and compensate for a defense that may have issues at times, but that all faltered last night with a sputtering offense. Strong, consistent defensive play then isn't perhaps an added bonus, but instead a necessity if Alabama is going to find a way to Miami. Teams with sluggish, inconsistent and non-explosive offenses don't win national championships without dominant defenses, so if the former is going to become a consistent fixture, the latter will have to as well.
As Nick Saban indicated in the postgame, turnovers and the kick-off return for a touchdown by Christion Jones were the real difference-makers in this game. Not only did they give Alabama easy points with little offensive production, they allowed 'Bama to take back the momentum and gain control of the game in the second quarter, and from that point put the team in position to defend a 27-7 lead in the second half, as opposed to playing in a much tighter game down the stretch. Take those two things away and we're talking about a very different game.
The biggest concern in the the aftermath, of course, are the injuries suffered by many key contributors. Wide receiver DeAndrew White went down early with what looks to be a serious knee injury, and with an MRI scheduled for today the fear is that he will miss the remainder of the season. Cornerback Deion Belue, who suffered a shoulder injury and missed the entire second half, could be an even bigger concern given the depth issues at cornerback. Nick Saban said afterwards that he should only miss a week or two, but clearly an injury at cornerback is not what Alabama wanted with Missouri and Tennessee on the horizon. Dee Hart also went down with an apparent knee injury, though judging by his post-game Twitter comments he should be fine, and the same apparently goes for Ed Stinson. White may be the only one who will miss significant time long-term, but if the goal last night was to win and stay healthy in the process, clearly the latter part of the plan did not go as hoped. We'll just have to play it by ear to see exactly how serious the injuries are and what impact they will have moving forward.
In other quick hitters, Amari Cooper has simply done some things that a true freshman typically does not do. There will probably never be another Julio Jones in Tuscaloosa, but Cooper has an opportunity to be a very special player. John Fulton played the entire second half in place of Deion Belue, but oddly enough was only thrown at twice by Ole Miss. DeMarcus Milliner looks more and more like a three-year player with each passing week. Brent Callaway saw his first significant game action at H-back last night, but that probably says more about the unsettled nature of the position than anything else. Dee Hart was the punt returner last night, and not Christion Jones, who has had some issues with ball security. Jeoffrey Pagan has become a stalwart on the defensive line. Speaking of Pagan, am I the only one who thinks Freddie Roach has returned every time you see him on the field? Cade Foster continues to do well, racking up seven touchbacks on eight tries. Nick Perry had his first career sack last night. Robert Lester had his bell rung last night on the interception return, but came back and appeared to be fine. Great blocking on the kick-off return for a touchdown by Jones, who was never touched on his way to the end zone. Punting badly hurt Ole Miss last night, netting on average only 29 yards on six punts. Jeremy Shelley with another strong showing in the short kicking game, and his four field goals helped create a bit of a cushion.
All in all, not exactly the best performance by any stretch, and clearly there are areas for improvement, especially on the offensive side of the ball. The injuries sustained are a major concern moving forward, and at the least an unwelcome sight. Even so, though, give Ole Miss credit for putting up a strong fight, and it probably should be noted that for whatever reason 'Bama typically puts on ugly performances against the Rebels. Alabama didn't exactly end on a high note, and the bye week is clearly needed at this point given the various injuries, but on the whole the first five weeks of the season went as planned, and now 'Bama can take the off week to rest and regroup for what will be the critical stretch run in the five weeks that follow.