Alabama opened up a can on Kentucky in Lexington Saturday night. The blue-clad crowd was excited to see the nation's top-rated team in town, and the noise level continued through the early part of the second quarter, but by halftime reality had set in, and the Wildcat faithful realized that their best hope was that John Calipari's crew could take revenge in the winter.
Kentucky is probably the worst team in the SEC, although Arkansas and maybe Mississippi St. sure put in a word Saturday. But that doesn't mean that UK is terrible, because they're not; it means that the SEC is extremely deep this year. Kentucky played some decent teams before they played Alabama, and gave Louisville, Florida and South Carolina a respectable run for their money.
Such was not the case on Saturday, as Alabama handled the Wildcats in a way they haven't been handled before. You could look at it as the best of all possible worlds for Tide fans, as Alabama's early self-caused errors, plus the fact that Kentucky got 7 out of their sole good offensive possession, gave Bama fans the chance to watch the Tide's first-string offense rampage well into the 4th quarter even though Kentucky was manhandled on both sides of the ball from the opening snap.
When all was said and done, Alabama had accumulated 35 first downs, 668 yards of offense, and 299 on the ground against a team that was giving up an average of 19 first downs, 391 yards of offense, and 196 yards on the ground coming in, and that against a fairly tough schedule.
Obviously, Alabama's offense exhibited some sloppiness in this game, including 5 dropped passes and 2 fumbles. I'll take that along with the power and cohesion shown by the offensive line. Power and cohesion from the line is much more likely to replicate itself than is fumbles and drops. Even in the first quarter, when we killed our own drives three times in a row, I felt very good about this game. Bama took it to Kentucky from the get-go, and it just . . . wasn't . . . fair.
I didn't have the feeling that Kentucky's QB injury made any difference at all. Whitlow looked perfectly hapless during the brief period he was in.
AJ McCarron had his best game of the season, yardage-wise, 21-35 for 359 yards, 1 TD and no picks, but frankly, he had an easy job. The offensive line gave him all the time he needed, as he only had to hurry one throw the whole game, and his receivers - when they weren't recording 5 drops - were grabbing jump balls right away from Kentucky's outmanned defensive backs.
AJ's deep passing was not what it could've been, though. Even though his receivers turned two of them into completions, his three deepest throws were all underthrown, one badly.
Probably his two sharpest downfield completions were in his last possession on the field, during the quick 4th-quarter drive that put Bama ahead 41-7. Comically, ESPN had Todd McShay yakking about McCarron in a corner screen inlay during the drive. McShay was trashing McCarron as a 3rd-tier quarterback who can't drive it downfield exactly as AJ moved the Tide 68 yards into the end zone on three straight completions, including back-to-back downfield laser strikes to DeAndrew White and Kevin Norwood to cap off the rapid attack and showcase McCarron's arm.
AJ looked more willing to run, and perhaps half a step quicker, than he has looked the last few games.
The Tide's top two running backs enjoyed field days, combining for 230 yards and 4 TDs on 30 carries. Kenyan Drake continued to exhibit tremendous acceleration toward the hole and the ability to run through arm tackles, while T.J. Yeldon twice showcased a downfield burst to the outside that I'm not sure I've seen before, and also had a 180 cutback followed by a bull drive to the line on a 6-yard TD run after a run blitzer broke through and forced T.J. to improvise.
Both guys fumbled, neither as the result of a particularly savage hit, and both guys dropped a pass, with Yeldon's drop a wide-open flat pass that might've turned into a 30-yard TD. While plays like that happen, and shouldn't be taken as an indicator that Bama's backs will fumble and drop passes next week, too, it seems clear by now that neither Yeldon nor Drake is extraordinarily good at ball security. Tide fans were probably a bit spoiled in that regard by Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, and ordinary ball security problems probably seem a little more worrisome than they actually are. Fumbles hurt, but they happen.
Jalston Fowler also dropped an open pass that could've been a TD - it would have required some brutal running, but that is in Fowler's repertoire.
Altee Tenpenny and Derrick Henry saw some action. I have been putting Henry in the "fast and strong, but needs some work on spotting holes" category, but he made a very nice cutback move to daylight and a nice gain against Kentucky. Tenpenny runs hard, but I'm still waiting to see him break into daylight.
Drake failed to significantly slow down a blitzing linebacker on the only play of the night where McCarron was hurried, leading to a rushed throw, a 3rd-down incompletion, and a short field goal.
Isn't it nice being that team with the receivers that can just take it away from the other side's DBs? So your QB can just throw it up for grabs and everything's good? Alabama fans are used to seeing that kind of elite receiver play only from certain other teams and never from the Tide, but last night it was White and Norwood robbing Kentucky on two underthrown McCarron deep balls and most of the receiver corps looking physically superior to the opposition.
White is a quarter-step faster every game and is starting to come into his own. A lot of times receivers will come out and show you pretty much everything they've got, or close to it, as freshmen, but White has found new moves as an upperclassman. If Amari Cooper wants to be the star again after he gets healthy, he will have his work cut out for him.
Speaking of Cooper, he showed a flash or two of the 2012 Amari form weaving his way through the Kentucky defensive backfield after a crossing route reception. That was the best work we have seen from him in 2013, and I'm cautiously optimistic that he will be in full form by the time of the LSU game.
Kenny Bell had two drops, not something I associate with him, and the first one was potentially harmful, as it came before the tone of the game was set and killed the Tide's first drive. He's still Bama's best deep threat, so here's hoping that this was just a one-game fluke.
After the Ole Miss game a couple of weeks ago, I made this comment:
Before I started watching the replay, I set aside a little area on my notepad to record bad blocks. The area was full by the end of the 1st quarter, and when I made another area, it was almost full by the end of the 2nd quarter.
This week it was the area on my notepad for good running blocks that overflowed. What a nice change. What a very, very nice change.
First I'll cover pass-blocking, which generally means "here are the guys who got beat in pass blocking." OK, I'm done. I didn't see a single Kentucky guy beat an Alabama offensive lineman and get to McCarron, not once, not in the whole game. Cyrus Kouandjio, in particularly, looked very NFL in pass-blocking. He didn't flirt with (or get) a false start penalty by jumping back too soon, as has been his practice too often, and once he gets set he looks like he could keep his guy away from the QB indefinitely. He was particularly good at inviting his man to go the circle route but then using his interior angle to cut the rusher off before he could distract McCarron.
I saw nice run-blocking from everybody on the line, but I also saw the best general push along the line that we've seen this season and almost zero plays where our running backs had to pick their way through traffic in the backfield, as has happened all too often in 2013.
On an early play, Lindsay chipped his lineman and then got downfield to take out a linebacker, and twice he got into position as a pull-blocker. Arie Kouandjio also pulled successfully a couple of times. Alabama ran behind Shepherd and Steen early, as they have done most of the season, including on the first touchdown and on Yeldon's second long run. Shepherd and Vogler created the hole Yeldon ran through for his 24-yard TD in the 2nd quarter.
Grant Hill saw a lot of time at right tackle, beginning just after Alabama scored its first TD in the 2nd quarter. At first I thought it was an injury issue, and perhaps it was, because Shepherd certainly played well in this game and had enough of the coaches' confidence for us to run behind him frequently when he was in. But the two guys swapped throughout the game, and we continued to run on that side, with success, when Hill was in, including on Hill's first play in the game, when Drake got a nice pickup as Hill got downfield and took a linebacker out of the play. Hill was still in late in the game when the Tide went to the 2nd-team line.
If Shepherd is injured, that's a concern. Assuming Hill is so good he has to get on the field, I would still be a little surprised to see him take Shepherd's job away, as there have been other OL spots that have, in my view, been a bit more of a struggle for the Tide, and I'm talking about the Kouandjio brothers, both of them. Whatever led to his being in the game, Hill played well.
About the only real blocking error I picked up was on the first play from scrimmage, when Shepherd went to the 2nd level to take a linebacker while the defensive end blew by him to stone the running play near the line. Hill was called for a false start, Lindsay for holding, and Arie Kouandjio was very lucky not to be flagged for spearing a guy on the ground, a blatant foul that could conceivably have led to an ejection.
Overall, take it with a grain of salt because Kentucky was giving up 196 yards a game on the ground coming in, but this had the look of a very nice step forward in run-blocking by Bama's young offensive line, and the pass-blocking couldn't be improved on. If this offensive line actually starts playing at a high level, watch out.
Start with A-Shawn Robinson, who registered two sacks and a hurry. One of the sacks was a mundane coverage sack where Robinson finally bumbled through after 5 or 6 seconds, but the other was a very fine play where he shoved a Kentucky lineman off him with brute force and accelerated quickly to the quarterback. Similarly, Robinson beat his man off the snap and got to the quarterback quickly when he got the hurry.
It sure would be nice to have a defensive lineman who can disrupt pass plays like that even when the Tide doesn't blitz. Alabama hasn't featured the like since Courtney Upshaw and Marcel Dareus left for the NFL.
Ed Stinson got a coverage sack.
Kentucky got no push against our defensive line on running plays, and most of their yardage came from the Wildcats' elusive little backs finding holes when there wasn't necessarily anything available. Generally, Denzel Devall, Jeoffrey Pagan and Stinson held the point of attack and pinched in, and the middle was covered by the big bodies, Robinson and Brandon Ivory.
Darren Lake showed up well on the stat line with 5 tackles, mostly late-game, but he doesn't get as much playing time as our 2nd-string nose tackles have gotten in recent years. Lake got nailed with a 15-yard facemask, but was the key guy standing up the line when Kentucky went for it and failed on 4th and 1 in Bama territory in the 4th quarter. However, he was also the guy manning the middle when Kentucky powered ahead on a 4th and 2 on their TD drive.
Speaking of the TD drive, a key to Kentucky's success was the 15-yarder against Jonathan Allen for retaliating after the play where Robinson made that very nice sack move I described above. But for that penalty, Kentucky would've been looking at 2nd and 17, and best of luck to the ‘Cats on that one.
C.J. Mosley never takes a game off. He now officially has twice as many tackles as anybody else on the team, and is playing a physical and dominating game. We will miss this guy next year.
Adrian Hubbard did make one nice pinch-in to stifle a draw play, and was credited with 3 tackles, but he is now in a 3-way tie for 7th on the team in tackles, which ain't so great for a starting linebacker. After recording 10 TFLs as a sophomore in 2012, he only has 2 so far this season, and not a single sack after 6 last year. So far you have to call this a disappointing season for a guy who is considered by some to be a potential first-rounder next May. My best guess is an undisclosed injury, as I had the impression of greater activity from #42 earlier in the season than we have seen more recently.
Reuben Foster, now wearing the #9 jersey, saw some time late. He didn't make a play but he did come flying in like a cannon shot on a sweep, barely getting chipped off by a UK lineman to prevent him from totally obliterating a Kentucky running back several yards behind the line. It was a play that produced nothing but was very reminiscent of the high-school highlight films that had so many of us drooling.
I also noticed Tim Williams making a very heads-up play in late action, pulling away from a blitz to cover a running back swinging into the flat and thereby denying what could've been a good gain.
Alabama was without two starters, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (still suspended), and Eddie Jackson (ankle injury). It didn't show, as UK completed only 7-18 for 76 yards, most of which came after the game was out of reach. The DBs accounted for 3 of the 4 sacks, as 2 of them were pure coverage sacks and Jarrick Williams got an early sack by fending off the UK running back's block and getting to Whitlow anyway, leading to the Kentucky QB's missing the rest of the game with an ankle injury.
Vinnie Sunseri was our most active DB, with a blocked pass and a break-up that was nearly a pick. He led the DBs with 3 tackles. That's a low number of tackles to lead defensive backs, which is a solid sign that the Tide's DL and ‘backers were taking care of business.
UK was 0-2 testing Adrian Belue, just like Georgia St. was last week. At the other corner, Bradley Sylve was flagged for interference, but it looked like a bad call, at least from the angle shown on TV. Sylve made a very nice play breaking up an accurately thrown 1st-quarter pass.
Landon Collins has a combination of speed, power and agility that doesn't come along every day. However, he got caught a step behind his man on a crossing pattern: the pass was dropped, but looked like a big gainer otherwise.
Hard to say exactly what happened on the Kentucky TD pass from the angles shown on TD. John Fulton was trailing a good 5 yards behind the receiver from the first moment he was seen on screen: one certainly hopes he was not responsible for that guy. Sunseri was semi-blitzing, so if a safety was supposed to give Fulton help on that play, it was Collins, who was trapped to the side and couldn't get back to the middle to stop the TD.
Cyrus Jones has obviously slid down the depth chart since the TAMU game.
Here's the size of your grain of salt. UK came into the nation 50th in the nation in passing efficiency, ahead of only 5 other SEC teams, but still, just a bit below conference average - yet Bama shut it down cold without two starters.
Special teams play was, again, nothing short of excellent, as has been the case each week in 2013. This is hands-down the best special-teams unit of Nick Saban's tenure. So far Alabama's special teams have been good or better in every game and at every facet: punting, place-kicking, kickoff returns, punt returns, kickoff return coverage and punt return coverage.
For the second straight week, Cody Mandell - another guy we will miss next year - only punted once, a 47-yarder. The ball hit at the 5 and took a hard, skidding forward bounce into the end zone, robbing the Tide's punt-coverage team of the chance to do what it has done several times this year, down a punt deep in the opponent's territory.
Cade Foster was 2 for 2 on short field goals, and is 7 for 8 on the season, with the lone miss being from over 50 yards and respectably close. Cade is getting it up into the air quickly, too. He also had 3 touchbacks on 6 kickoffs, with Adam Griffith handling the last kickoff and recording a touchback of his own.
Christion Jones had a spectacular 30-yard punt return where he sprinted forward to snag a short punt on the run and then cut through most of Kentucky's punt return team to get to the far sideline and turn it upfield. Even after all that, he smartly used his blockers downfield to get a few extra yards at the end.