TUSCALOOSA, AL - SEPTEMBER 08: Gavin Rocker #88 of the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers sacks AJ McCarron #10 of the Alabama Crimson Tide at Bryant-Denny Stadium on September 8, 2012 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Alabama center Barrett Jones said that if not for the line's problems in pass protection, McCarron might have put up even better numbers. "If we can protect him better, he could have had a career day," Jones said. Said Saban: "We need to do a better job in the passing game. AJ is a guy that is very capable of making a lot of good plays, a lot of good throws. We had a couple drops today. Not perfect passes but passes that should be caught. "We just need to get in sync in terms of what we're doing."
But it wasn't all success in the passing game, as Western Kentucky registered six sacks for minus-48 yards. Alabama allowed a total of 17 sacks in 2011. "Three or four of those were guys just got beat," Saban said. "A couple of them were pressures that we didn't pick up properly. So that's something that we definitely need to get better on." The good news is that Norwood continued to show signs of being a go-to receiver and Jones proved capable of making big plays. The highlight of the day came on Jones' 22-yard juggling, toe-tap touchdown grab in the second quarter. "It was something that we practice every day," Jones said. "It's just about me getting my timing right with AJ and everyone else. I'm playing at full speed and finding a way to get open."
With WKU bringing the entire cast of 19 Kids and Counting against the run, McCarron had favorable macthups on the outside, which he exploited early and often en route to passing for four scores. Ultimately, what WKU defensive coordinator Lance Guidry gained by loading up against the run (Alabama rushed for an un-Alabama-like 103 yards), he paid for through the air. Jones' first two catches of the season went for first-half touchdowns, the second of which came on a corner route that McCarron could not have placed any better. By halftime, the sophomore had as many touchdown receptions against WKU as Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks had all of last season combined.
"They played us like I thought they would," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "Run the ball, shrink the game, complete a lot of short passes, and pressure like crazy on defense to try to give you negative plays. Every time they gave us a negative play, we didn't overcome it very well. When we executed properly, I thought we did a pretty good job, put some good drives together and made some big plays, but that is something that we definitely need to get corrected."
AJ McCarron showed once again Saturday that his days as the "caretaker" of the Alabama offense are finished. He had another good game in Saturday’s 35-0 win over Western Kentucky, completing 14 of 19 passes for 219 yards. With a lackluster running game, McCarron and his receivers provided the bulk of the results. Through two games, he has five touchdown passes. Also, showing that he still can manage an offense, the Tide has made only one turnover this season. Sounds great for Alabama, doesn’t it? With a guy like this, how can the No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide fail? But here’s the problem — quarterbacks get hurt sometimes, and unlike at other positions, Alabama doesn’t have much of anything behind center except McCarron. There’s little depth, unless the Crimson Tide can manufacture some. This bothers Nick Saban more than you might think. It sticks in his mind.
This isn’t one of the Crimson Tide’s stars. Not even a starter. But it was becoming clear that Fowler would be a key player in Alabama’s offense this season. He is the third-team running back but was seeing extensive action at fullback in an I-formation that is a different wrinkle in new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier’s attack. Fowler even was playing H-back. "He’s basically a starter, in our opinion," Jones said. "He plays a lot. It will be a big loss." There’s nothing like an injury to kill the mood after a victory by five touchdowns. "I visited with him," Jones said. "I tried to encourage him. You never want to see one of your guys go down. He seemed a little down. … He seemed in pain."
Coming out of Cowboys Stadium last week, no one looked at Alabama's glass as half-empty, or anything close to it. The general consensus was that the Crimson Tide was overflowing with talent, with experience, with all-around awesomeness. And no one put a cork in all the free-flowing champagne gushing all week long, no matter how many times Nick Saban said one should. The predictable result of that imbibing? A slight touch of the dreaded hangover. It was not enough to incapacitate the nation's No. 1 team, just enough to make it intermittently look as wobbly as a new sailor on his first boat. "I think there was, a little bit," UA center Barrett Jones responded when asked the hangover question. "Maybe we just didn't do a very good job of preparing. I don't think it was effort. I think it was execution, but maybe that comes from not preparing as well as we should.
Nose guard Jesse Williams and defensive back Dee Milliner did not play Saturday, giving the Razorbacks coaching staff a more extensive look at reserve personnel Nick Perry, John Fulton and Brandon Ivory. But seeing them and exposing them are two entirely different challenges. And Western Kentucky did nothing Saturday to suggest that any of the three - if called on again in Fayetteville - are easy prey. "Brandon did a pretty good job in the middle," Saban said of Ivory. "We were a little soft on the run at times, but we need to work on that (as a team) as well."
AJ McCarron walked into the University of Alabama record books on Saturday - when he wasn't getting knocked down. That paradox summed up Alabama's 35-0 victory over Western Kentucky at Bryant-Denny Stadium, a win that was comfortable without being crisp for the No. 1 ranked Crimson Tide. McCarron threw for four touchdowns in the game, making him the first Alabama quarterback ever to have two four-touchdown passing performances in his career. But he was also sacked six times, and Alabama's vaunted running game just barely got over the 100-yard mark after a line performance that center Barrett Jones described as "pretty average." The defense fared better, shutting out the Hilltoppers, thanks in large part to four forced turnovers (three fumbles and an interception), although WKU did move the ball intermittently. "The game ended up being like I expected it to be and different from what a lot of people here expected it to be," UA head coach Nick Saban said. "Defensively, we didn't give up big plays, which is really important. I was pleased with being able to get a shutout. I think the turnovers were huge in that."
"I think we learned that any time we don't bring our best, we're pretty average," Jones said. "That goes for any unit on the field. If you're not going to bring your best, you're going to be pretty average. "We had a good game plan, we just didn't execute it very well."
Williams, who missed most of last week’s second half with a concussion, practiced Wednesday and Thursday but woke up with a headache Saturday, Saban said. "His concussion scores are normal. We never had an issue with them," Saban said. "He said he could play if he needed to. The doctor said if you don't need him, don't play him so we didn't play him. Hopefully that will give him time to get over that."
"We were fortunate to hit a couple of big plays today," Saban said. "He threw it to the right guy, and read the coverage correctly and the receivers did a good job of getting in the right place and getting open. "We need to do a better job in the passing game, AJ is a guy that is very capable of making a lot of good plays, a lot of good throws, we had a couple of drops today -- not perfect passes, but passes that should be caught. "We just need to get in sync in terms of what we are doing in the passing game."
"We’ve been working on creating fumbles for two years," Saban said. "We worked on it all last year. Worked on it all this year. Whatever we did last year didn’t work. For all the good things that defense did, we didn’t create a lot of fumbles. ... If we can be really good in turnover ratio and be a good turnover team, that would be very beneficial to us."
That the Hilltoppers arguably put up a stronger fight against Alabama than Michigan did last week means only two things: The Tide was specifically prepared for the Wolverines, and its next real game is next week at Arkansas. If you are Saban and Alabama, you beat WKU 28-0 or 35-0, as the Tide’s last score made it, you congratulate the visitors for a job well done, you tell the media "I told you so" about the problems Western Kentucky presents for your team, and you get to work immediately on the Razorbacks. Saban, who you’d think would’ve been upset over a game in which his vaunted offensive line gave up six sacks and its great backfield managed 101 yards rushing, was matter-of-fact in his news conference afterward. He said nothing WKU did surprised him or his players, that he knew they would be tough to handle.
On if Western Kentucky was doing anything out of the ordinary on defense to cause the six sacks today: "No, I think all the things that they did were things that they have done in the past. Like I said, at least three of the sacks somebody got beat on the edge. Couple other times, we probably held the ball - the last one we held the ball, no one was really open. We just need to do a better job all the way around, in pass protection, in our ability to throw the ball with consistency, the balance and identity that we create on offense, in terms of what we do, I think is real important and they played us like I thought they would. Run the ball, shrink the game, complete a lot of short passes, and pressure like crazy on defense to try to give you negative plays and every time they gave us a negative play we didn't overcome it very well. When we executed properly, I thought we did a pretty good job, put some good drives together and made some big plays, but that is something that we definitely need to get corrected."
Western Kentucky held Alabama to 103 yards rushing but couldn’t contain A.J. McCarron. The junior quarterback threw for 219 yards on 14 of 19 passing and tied a career high with four touchdown throws. Three of those TDs came directly after WKU turned the ball over. "At the end of the day, that’s what it all boils down to," WKU coach Willie Taggart said. "We wanted to play good defense, stop the run and not turn the ball over. We did totally opposite of what we wanted to do. We played the No. 1 team in the country and whenever you turn the ball over, you limit yourself opportunities."
Points were left on the field, the starters played well into the fourth quarter, running back Jalston Fowler was carted off the field with what appeared to be a severe knee injury and the Hilltoppers, despite turning the ball over four times, moved the ball with some rhythm on their way to 224 yards of offense. There won't be the same margin for error next week at No. 8 Arkansas. "We definitely can't play like we did today," wide receiver Kevin Norwood said. "Thirty-five to nothing might seem good for the fans, but we know deep down inside that we didn't play our best."