At least once during every season a weekend comes along to prove that anything can happen in college football and no matter how smart you are or how much analysis you do, what happens happens and there's no sure way to know who's going to come out on top. Few would have guessed that Vandy would push Bama to the brink, much less that it would occur on the same day that Tennessee barely holds off Air Force by stopping a two point conversion and Florida State needs a fourth quarter rally to beat Troy at home.
Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue.
As I wrote in the preview over on my blog, I thought this was going to be a total cakewalk. We would whip Vandy to the tune of 24-0 while working out some kinks in the running game, springing Darby for well over 100 yards and putting him back on track to become the #1 all time rusher in Bama history. Instead he had to fight for 65 yards on 21 carries (an extremely sub par 3.1 ypc average), Wilson had to carry the team on his arm, and we needed another last second interception at the goal line to preserve the win. So what went wrong?
The Bama offense is beginning to resemble the football equivalent of a Frasier episode: Well meaning guys that you can't help but root for failing spectacularly in a by the book comedy of errors.
Could Frasier and Niles do any worse than Rader and Shula?
In Week 1 against Hawaii, the Tide visited the red zone five times and scored on four of those posessions. Only one of them put six on the board. The other three were Leigh Tiffin field goals and the fifth posession netted zero after Tiffin missed. That's not the rosiest picture that can be painted about ANY offense, but it might as well be a Renoir compared to our showing against Vandy. In four trips inside the 20, we scored twice; both Leigh Tiffin field goals. Of the twelve teams in the SEC, we're tied for 9th with Arkansas in red zone scoring (six scores in nine trips, or 67%) and again tied for ninth with Vandy in red zone TDs with one. Of course, Vandy is 1 for 1, while we are 1 for 9, a statistic that's every bit as horrifying as it sounds. The two trips inside the red zone for Bama that didn't net any points were both due to fumbles by the usually sure handed backs Tim Castille and Jimmy Johns. Castille's ended a 63 yard drive that ate 5:49 off the clock, the kind of drive that Bama thrives on and will need to execute regularly to win games against the more explosive offenses in the SEC. Johns's fumble killed what looked like a turning point for Bama after Vandy's return man fumbled the kickoff after the only TD drive of the day for the Tide. It's frustrating mistakes like these that must be corrected, but that also simply can't be accounted for. Neither Johns nor Castille have displayed problems with putting the ball on the ground which is the exact reason why both are trusted in short yardage situations. If there is anything that must be corrected to solve the red zone problems its the play calling from the sidelines. The Tide moved the ball effectively through the air the entire game, outgaining Vandy in total yards (366 vs 248) and first downs (23 vs 12), but was unable to move the ball when it mattered most. Red zone play calling may be more difficult, but that doesn't stop the rest of the SEC (or nation) from getting 6 when it moves the ball that effectively. I'm not sure what, if any, corrections are going to be made. According to this article in the Birmingham News, "a significant portion of practice is devoted to playing inside the 20." Well what exactly are they practicing out there? According to Shula, "(w)e'll do the same things (to improve) next week...If we were 10-for-10 in the plus territory, we'd be doing the same thing." Well you're not 10 for 10 in the red zone, and the last time I checked the definition of insanity said something about doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. It's this sort of frustrating offensive attitude that fuels the calls for Rader's (and even Shula's) ouster each week.
A quick aside before I get all "it's the offensive revolution, man" here, I must confess that I actually believe in the schemes that Shula and Rader run. They're vanilla, and they haven't been as effective as everyone would like yet, but I like the fact that they are designed to put the ball in the hands of the playmakers and let them make plays. Last season the offense was humming right along with Croyle under center and Prothro running wild over anyone foolish enough to try and cover him. Even when he was completely negated at South Carolina both as a receiver and a kick returner (either double covered or always having the ball kicked away from him), he became an incredible offensive weapon when he was lined up in the backfield as a tailback and rushed for over 60 yards on only 3 carries. The plays and schemes didn't change, the only difference on Shula's part was a determination to get the ball into the hands of his top playmaker. The season started going sour when Prothro was taken out with a broken leg against Florida. DJ Hall was the next best receiver, and we barely escaped Oxford with a win after he was taken to the sidelines with a back injury early in the second half. That same determination to let the best talent on the field carry the game was present when, on 3rd on long, a draw play was called to keep the drive going and to try to set up the game winning field goal. None of the receivers on the field could be counted on to catch the crucial pass, so the decision was made to put the ball in Darby's hands. He converted the 3rd and long and the rest is history. Unfortunately O-Line problems sprung up later due to injury, negating the play making abilities of both Croyle and Darby. What is frustrating is the inflexibility of the playcalling. In the Iron Bowl, Shula called the game as if there were no problems on the O-line and darn near got Brodie killed. Instead of lining up in max protect or loading the backfield with two halfbacks and a fullback and making the defensive front guess who was going where, he seemed content to watch the Auburn defense make a fool of him. Just because Croyle was a playmaker, putting the ball in his hands isn't a guarantee that he'll make a play. Without blocking he couldn't do his job. But I digress...
Even as a child I was known for my pontifications on the virtues and short comings of various offensive schemery.
Further exacerbating the offensive problems is the continued O-Line troubles. Right tackle Chris Capps, who won the starting job away from last season's starter Kyle Tatum, is clearly the weak link in the line. The right side was routinely collapsed, and it's the general consensus that Darby's troubles are a direct result of his being unable to run to the right. It's a claim with some merit, considering Jimmy Johns rushed for several big gains (his longest rush of the day was a 14 yarder) while working behind super stud freshman Andre Smith and Justin Britt to the left. Tatum was under suspension on saturday for violating team rules leaving Capps the only option, no matter how poorly he was performing. I would assume that Tatum will be back on the first team offense (seat at the table!) come Saturday, but who knows? User Chalkdust Bama is clearly fed up with Capps, and that's a sentiment being shared by every Bama fan I've talked to since Saturday. I don't know what the answer is either, but something must be done.
On the positive side, JP has effectively carried the burden of winning without run support. He showed some immaturity Saturday (throwing the interception when pressured, trying to force a ball into double coverage instead of checking down to a wide open DJ Hall, hitting Darby on a busted screen for a loss instead of throwing it at his feet, taking a sack on 3rd and short), but his touchdown drive to start the second half was run to perfection. He finished the day 18 of 29 for 207 yards, 1 TD, and 1 pick (vs Nickson who finished 15 of 23 for 140 yards, 1 TD and 3 picks) and showed plenty of poise, scrambling when needed and throwing the ball away on one occasion instead of taking the sack. He does, in fact, seem like someone we can win with, and I'm excited about his future with this team.
Other than Vandy's TD drive, I felt the defense played admirably. They shut down the Vandy offense in the second half after making some adjustments and, despite the young linebackers overpursuing plays, played like a unit that has already come together. Simeon Castille must be honored as the player of the game, coming away with two timely interceptions to kill Vandy drives and, in the case of one of them, set up a score for Bama.
With every negative there is a positive and, like the whipping of Florida after the lackluster performance against Arkansas last season, it is my hope we can come out and show that we learn from our mistakes and correct them. This coming Saturday we face La. Monroe, a team that rallied to within two points of upsetting Big 12 middler Kansas. I'm looking forward to the game to see what sort of progress has been made this week. While Vandy to La. Monroe isn't exaclty Arkansas to Florida, it's another tune up opportunity before we enter the heart of the schedule, and one more chance for these guys to prove they deserve to be in Crimson and White. Roll Tide.