So here's how it went: kickoff, 6-yard-run, first down completion nullified by a penalty and then, just that far into the game, Amari Cooper is off to the races and it's 7-0. A 3 and out for Tennessee and Alabama has the ball back up 7-0 with 12:30 left in the first quarter. End of the quarter, and Alabama has 21 points and Tennessee has 1 first down.
Tennessee has shown a level of play as of late that is a clear cut above Bama's last couple of opponents, but the Vols made early mistakes and the Tide washed all over that mess. That early Cooper TD was only a TD because UT's nickel back Jaron Toney took a bad angle. After the subsequent kickoff Vol receiver Brandon Downs was wide open over the middle on 3rd and 5 but tripped over a chalk mark just before Worley's accurate throw reached him, derailing what looked like a big gainer. Leading to a 3 and out. And 14-0.
Those two plays go differently and we have a different ball game. But while nobody can say how different it would've been . . . you know, it probably wouldn't have been that different, really. It's certainly hard to imagine Tennessee stopping Alabama's first-string offense with any regularity.
They sure didn't on Saturday, so it's been a while since we've had a chance to analyze a Bama game that included 60 minutes of competitive football. Maybe we won't get that chance again this season. Wouldn't that be nice?
In the meanwhile, we analyze what we can. So let's look at the positions.
AJ McCarron is getting more and more comfortable with the I've-got-all-day-to-pass situation he has been consistently confronted with over the last several games. AJ was consistently rolling out of the pocket when he couldn't spot a man and trusting his lines to keep their blocks and allow him to set up again. He spent 6-8 seconds looking for a guy multiple times, and with his throwing ability and Alabama's athletic wideouts, that's just . . . not . . . fair.
But McCarron wasn't perfect. He overthrew Amari Cooper on what should have been a TD strike, and missed another TD throw later by floating it out the back of the end zone when OJ Howard came open late. AJ looked distinctly like a quarterback "blocking" for Christion Jones when #22 reversed field on a first-half run: if #10 actually makes the block there, it's a touchdown.
He also foolishly tried to stretch the ball over the goal line on a keeper. He got away with it, but AJ was one-handing it, and the ball was easily within swatting range of UT linebacker Brent Brewer. At least it was on 2nd down, not 1st, so it wasn't the essence of reach-out-the-ball foolishness - just nearly so.
Didn't really see anything one way or the other from Blake Sims.
Glad that I'm already on the record about that sticking the ball out at the goal line nonsense, and Kenyan Drake's fumble yesterday exactly fit the parameters I've already described for when you shouldn't stick it out: Drake already had the first down locked up (so it would be no big deal if he didn't score), yet tried to quickly reach the ball out immediately after taking a big hit on his ball arm, when he didn't have full control. Don't stick the football out without full control on an early down, guys!!! That's a major mental lapse.
This could actually prove to be a good thing if it wakes the staff up to the need to coach this pernicious nonsense up. They need a wake-up, and I ain't no football coach but I'm not afraid to say the obvious when it's obvious. Because it's not just Drake doing it, his co-worker Yeldon is also guilty, not to mention Bama's wise and grizzled old 5th-year quarterback.
The good news is that it was a mental error, not a physical one. All Drake has to do is decide not to fumble like that again - and hopefully he will be coerced, gently or otherwise, into that decision - and it won't happen again.
In other words, I wouldn't take it as making any significant impact in the battle between Yeldon and Drake for more touches, which is still a real thing as Drake once against averaged 1.5 yards per carry more than T.J. Saturday. Bear in mind, though, that Yeldon's yards per carry was affected by his trio of 1-yard TD runs; YPC is a great stat for a running back, but it's really not fair that it sometimes penalizes you for TDs. If you take the 3 TD runs away, he actually averaged 5.8 yards per carry against Tennessee, not the 4.8 that is in the books.
Yeldon showed a nice burst of his own on the 24-yard 3rd-quarter run that got the Tide from its 2 out to comfortable territory. Derrick Henry mirrored the achievement near the end of the game, bouncing one outside from the Bama 2 for 23 yards, and for just half a tick I thought he might be on his way to out-doing his Kentucky performance with a 98-yard last minute TD. Wonder how apoplectic Saban woulda been over that one?
As for Dee Hart, I'm really loving him in kickoff coverage, and now I'll move on.
Another day, another star. This time it was good old underrated Kevin Norwood burnishing his NFL prospects by hauling in 6 passes for 112 yards and a TD, as well as making a catch that should qualify for the 1-minute version of Alabama's 2013 season highlights. But I'm not so crazy about that vault move he made early on for an extra yard or two. The vault is generally begging for a serious injury, and when you tip it off by gathering yourself for the leap as Norwood did, it's really begging for an injury - and it almost happened, as the UT DB on Norwood almost caught Kevin's ankle between his bicep and forearm as #83 was at the top of his leap, and if he had been able to lock up the results could've been disastrous, with bad neck, head and leg injuries all in the possible results.
Amari Cooper is clearly returning to 2012 form and could easily have had 3 long TD receptions. After seeing his knee bend sidewise slightly from a helmet-to-knee impact in the 1st quarter, and after seeing the trainers stretch him out on the table for an ACL test, I don't know if I've seen anything more gratifying in 2013 than #9 back out on the field and running full speed later in the half. [GIANT SIGH OF RELIEF]
The pass interference call that took away a deep McCarron-to-Cooper TD strike didn't have to be called, but there's certainly nothing to complain about. Cooper's push-off was very slight, but when a guy is running at high speed even the slightest push will move him a few inches, and a few inches was about the margin of completion on that perfect throw to a well-covered guy.
Could Cooper have gotten to McCarron's overthrow if he had laid out? It didn't look to miss by much - and there were a couple of long passes last year where Cooper didn't lay out on balls that looked possibly catchable. Cooper is awesome, but he doesn't seem to favor laying out.
When Derrick Henry was stopped 3 yards behind the line on a listless sweep to the right behind the 2nd-string line with about 5 minutes left in the blowout, that was the first play Tennessee made in Alabama's backfield all day. All . . . motherluvin' . . . day. Compare that to the way Virginia Tech's linebackers set up camp in Alabama's backfield in Atlanta and the way even the stinky Texas A&M defense stoned T.J. Yeldon at the line or behind 5 times, and you can see the progress the Bama offensive line has made this year.
Further, in the first half of this game, every tote by an Alabama running back with only one exception got either a first down, a touchdown, or at least 3 yards gained. The exception was a draw on Bama's second series where Arie Kouandjio for some reason only chipped Daniel McCullers and then double-teamed Kelly's man instead of staying with Tennessee's mountainous nosetackle. McCullers wrapped Yeldon up for a 1-yard gain.
The line still isn't quite to the 2012 level, and won't be, but if it keeps improving at this pace it will be close by January, and folks, that is all that team needed because every other piece is in place to maybe even supply a "yes" answer to that silly question I asked before the season started. At least so long as Deion Belue, C.J. Mosley and AJ McCarron stay healthy, this team has a chance to be Saban's best team, Alabama's best team, and maybe college football's best team. Ever.
Wait. Need to fan myself for a moment.
Now, having splooged out all that nonsense, let me turn right around and say that 204 yards rushing and 5.5 a carry against a team that was giving up 179 and 4.8 coming in ain't nothin' special from a statistical perspective. One wonders how UT's D has been so soft against the run, because McCullers and A.J. Johnson are a couple of nice building blocks for a run D. While Bama did a great job of eliminating penetration and created some good holes from time to time, the wall-to-wall push that we saw against Kentucky just wasn't there.
Shepherd was called for illegal procedure, but on replay he didn't flinch even slightly. Maybe they just got the number wrong: if anything, Steen pulled back and started pass-blocking early, but that looked more like good timing to me, so I'm a bit mystified by that call.
A'Shawn Robinson got the start over Brandon Ivory, who missed the game for some mysterious reason. Robinson played well, with six tackles and two hurries, and Tennessee was held to 127 yards rushing, with 43 of that coming on one play and another 41 coming in garbage time, after Alabama went up 42-3 with 4 minutes left in the 3rd quarter and while the Tide was having to deal with a running quarterback who probably wasn't a significant factor in the defensive gameplan.
Jonathan Allen continued to see more playing time, and equaled Stinson for 2nd among D-linemen with 3 tackles. The CBS announcers thought he caused Worley's injury when he slammed the UT QB into the turf after a scramble, and they were probably right.
Kudos to Jeoffrey Pagan for hustling downfield to make the block on Worley that sprung Landon Collins for the TD just before halftime.
I thought my eyes were deceiving me when I looked at the box score after the game and saw C.J. Mosley with only one tackle. My initial thought was that perhaps he had missed part of the game and I failed to notice, so I watched for that on re-viewing, but no, he was out there barking orders to the D as long as the 1st-string D stayed on the field. He just kept getting on the wrong side of blockers or blitzing away from the play. For example, on Rajion Neal's 43-yard run up the middle on the first play of the 2nd half, a UT guard popped through to the 2nd level and Mosley went around him on the outside, allowing Neal to burst through on the inside.
Maybe it was just bad luck, but whenever I see a guy fall that far short of his normal results, I'm concerned about an undisclosed injury. Hopefully those fears will poof up in smoke in two weeks, because while I'm feeling pretty good about Alabama's next game right now, an injury to #32 might lead to a re-evaluation on that.
That's just speculation, of course, but hey, speculation is fun. Another guy I've been doing the injury-speculating on is Adrian Hubbard, and I don't know if I have just failed to notice it previously, but CBS pointed out Saturday that he is wearing something like oven mitts on both hands, apparently having broken or otherwise injured multiple fingers. Hubbard had a couple of assists and a hurry and looked pretty active for a guy who is basically without the use of his hands.
With Bama's linebackers falling like tenpins, at least in my over-active imagination, Trey Depriest stepped up. I called Depriest out for inactivity last week, but he made 5 tackles against UT, including a couple of very nice reads, one on a quarterback keeper and another on a reverse, to shut down running plays at the line.
Yes, Landon Collins looked just awful on that 43-yard completion just before halftime: he had good coverage, but didn't pick up the blooped and underthrown pass, and then reacted so hurriedly when his man stepped back and caught it that he fell down and left it all up to Deion Belue to save the touchdown. But two plays later he was trotting through the Vols end zone and it was 35-0 at the half. That kinda made up for it.
Other than the one awful play, Collins was a blast to watch, with athleticism that puts the rest of the Tide's defensive backfield in the shade. The man is fast, quick and powerful. He was a force in the running game, with 5 solo tackles and an assist, played tight coverage, and (shades of George Teague?) ran down Marquez North from well behind on the early 38-yard gain on the crossing pattern and punched the ball free when he caught him. (Unfortunately, the ball flew out of bounds.)
Hasean Clinton-Dix made a beautiful athletic pass breakup on an accurate throw over the middle. Later, though, he came forward too far, collided with Cyrus Jones who was being dragged across the middle on a crossing route, and lost contain on the Neal 43-yard run just after halftime that led to 3 points.
Cyrus Jones, filling in for the injured Bradley Sylve but also putting in his own word for the 2nd cornerback job, had mixed results. He was involved in the Clinton-Dix collision referenced above (although that one was mostly on #6, who had Jones in front of him), and inexplicably turned away from his man as if there were an invisible line down the middle of the field on the 38-yard crossing pattern to North. While it's possible that Jones' responsibility was only for one half of the field on that play, he should've recognized there was nobody there to pick North up.
Later, though, he made several good plays, including a nice run stop at the line when he came on a well-timed blitz and two very nice 4th-quarter plays against North, one an athletic deflection and the other a very physical takeaway that was nearly an interception. North's' similarity in play style to Mike Evans would probably be more noticeable if he played for Texas A&M instead of Tennessee, and it was particularly encouraging to see Cyrus taking him on physically after having seemed completely outmatched against Evans earlier in the season.
We saw a lot more of Geno Smith Saturday, and he looked good. Smith had the coverage on the tight end target when UT failed on 4th down on its second possession of the game (in other words during the brief window while the game was still competitive). The pass was overthrown, but Geno was in good position to deny the first down.
Gary Danielson made a good point in the booth about how quickly Alabama's defense goes on the attack after an interception. If Belue hadn't cut on the wrong side of Adrian Hubbard's block on Worley on the other pick, there might've been another pick-six to go along with Collins'. Alabama is averaging a stellar 29.6 yards per return on 8 picks this year, and that includes 3 "no return" picks. The Tide D is obviously trained to treat picks as scoring opportunities.
As I have said over and over, it has been so much fun watching Alabama's kickoff coverage this year - but it wasn't as much fun Saturday. Yes, there were some very nice plays made early by Dillon Lee and Dee Hart, but UT popped returns for 44 and 48 yards. I would have to guess that those kickoffs were not as high - Foster definitely hit one poorly late in the game that was returned to the 32 - as the returner was out to the 20 or so before Bama's guys came into the screen, which normally ain't the case. Maurice Smith missed a tackle at around the 22 on the first long return, but the dude just had a big hole on the second one and Adam Griffith had to make the tackle with Cyrus Jones in decent but not great position to stop the home run if Griffith missed.
Otherwise, all was good on special teams, as per normal. UT popped a couple of long returns? Uh-huh, well check this, Christion Jones popped a couple of longer ones, for 48 and 57. The 57-yarder was particularly entertaining, as Jones appeared to twist through the entire UT kickoff coverage team at least twice, staying about 3" away from getting tackled most of the way.
However, Jones made a bad decision when he failed to fair catch a punt at the 9, letting it hit and get downed at the 2. Folks, that thing about punt returners standing on the 10 and never going backwards is pure hokum, and I have to think that was just #22's mental error and not something he has been taught by the coaches. If the other team has guys down in position to make a play, you should fair catch as deep as the 5, maybe even the 4 if there are two guys already behind you. There's a big difference between being pinned at the 9, or even at the 5, and being pinned at the 1 or the 2. If you're inside the 4, you don't have enough room for your punter to punt, so suddenly the primary concern for the O isn't getting a first down, it's getting it out to the 4.
Foster did most of the kickoffs, but Griffith got the call late for a couple, including a touchback. He was also awarded a confidence-boosting short field goal and came through for the Tide's final points.
Cody Mandell got a bad bounce when his punt hit at the 8-yard-line and went sideways instead of forward because guess what, Landon Collins and Deandrew White had set up shop down at the 1-yard-line on that sucker. Just like they do.