I was nervous about this game all off-season. Despite Hawai'i tanking last year, it was clear that they had some serious talent on offense. They had a QB that threw for over 4,300 yards, threw 35 TDs, and completed 68% of his passes. It doesn't matter if it was predominantly against WAC defenses; those are numbers that have to be respected.
Alabama was a 17-point favorite and I never believed for a second that we'd cover it. Our offense is too low key and Hawai'i's offense too high powered for there to be a 17 point advantage. I was quite surprised we managed to get up by 19 at one point. Despite the lead, I was fully aware of the explosiveness of the Warrior offense and didn't feel relaxed until it was over.
We've all seen the game by now or read a million recaps of it, so I'm going to make some general comments about the different units on the field.
Kickoff coverage: Alabama gave up a 48-yard kickoff return on the first play of the game. With a Hawaii offense capable of covering a lot of ground quickly, this was not a good sign. The kickoff coverage was lacking all night. Our guys would fly down the field and be in position to keep Hawai'i behind the 20 and their return guys would just fake our coverage guys out of their shoes. The pursuit and positioning were pretty good, now they've just got to seal the deal on coverage.
Kicking game: True freshman Leigh Tiffin did a pretty admirable job for a first outing. He went 3 for 4 on field goals. He missed a 31-yarder in the 2nd quarter that dinged off of the upright. He was 2 for 2 on PATs.
Punt/Kickoff returns: Freshman Javier Arenas had a 31-yard kickoff return after the safety and did a decent job on his other returns for a first outing.
- Punting: Punter P.J. Fitzgerald, another freshman, did pretty well on his first outing. He nailed a 55-yarder that pinned Hawai'i on their one yard line in the 2nd quarter.
- John Parker Wilson had a fine first outing that I don't think anyone can complain about. He was 16 of 29 for 253 yards, 1 touchdown and zero interceptions. He will obviously throw a pick or two in his career, but it has to be good for confidence to get out without one in your first start.
- Kenneth Darby was completely shut down. Their defense had their sights set on him (and stacked eight in the box when he was in) and effectively took him out of the game. He had 25 yards on 16 carries. He also suffered a hip stinger that impacted his play.
- Jimmy Johns had 58 yards on 8 carries and looked really good doing it. I don't understand why he didn't get the ball more when Darby was being shutdown.
- Keith Brown had a nice 8-yard pickup on an end around. It was nice to see a smidgen of imagination being used in the run offense instead of repeatedly going up the middle.
- Keith Brown had a monster night receiving. 132 yards on 6 receptions, many of them being key grabs and difficult to hold onto. He got his bell rung by Leonard Peters and managed to hang onto the ball. It was a great night for Keith, hopefully he can continue to produce at this level.
- FINALLY, we saw some passing to the tight ends. Nick Walker and Travis McCall combined for 52 yards receiving on three receptions. It might not seem that big numbers-wise, but they were important plays and helped show another dimension of offense that's been sorely lacking the last several years.
- Matt Caddell had too many drops. He had three receptions, but his night was marred by dropping easy balls.
- It was nice to see Will Oakley finally snag a pass or two. Hopefully we'll use him more.
- The offensive line seems to be improved and had a pretty good first outing. JPW was only sacked once and didn't have to rush too many throws. We'll have to see how they hold up under greater pressure from better defenses.
- Alabama's always run a conservative offense and this game was no different. The refusal (or the inability) to make adjustments when the opposing defense has something figured out is incredibly frustrating. Our repeated attempts to go to Darby once they were stuffing the run were infuriating. Also, the jumbo package is like sending the other team a telegram in advance to tell them what we're about to do. A screen pass out of the jumbo set seems like the perfect remedy for the predictability and the ease of opposing defenses to read that formation. We could use some variety in the play calling for sure.
Assessing the defense in a game like this isn't always easy. We gave up a ton of yards (372 total, 350 passing), but did a very good job of neutralizing their attack in the first half. They finished the first half with 87 yards of total offense (91 passing, -4 rushing) and given their field position a time or two, them going into the locker room at the half with only 3 points is commendable. I believe I heard a stat saying this was the first time in a loooooooooong time that Hawai'i hadn't scored a first half TD (I don't remember how many games, but it was quite a few.)
Facing an offense like this with a bunch of new starters was difficult to watch at times. They'd line up three receivers on one side, pull everyone off of the line and then do a short screen to a running back or hit the fourth receiver lined up the other side on a route across the middle into the empty space. They absolutely murdered us with the shovel pass. They must've done that at least 10 times with great results almost every time. We frequently over pursued the QB only to have him shovel it off to one of their gigantic RBs.
Their receivers are great runners in the open field; they're quick, shifty and hard to bring down and made more than a few of our guys miss. Additionally, they run great routes and we didn't put a DB on the field that didn't get roasted at least once. They had enormous RBs that were tough to tackle and were quite good at turning the shovel pass into good gains.
We managed to sack their QB three times, which is not bad considering how quickly he typically releases the ball. I sat in the stands and just marveled at how fast he could unload the ball. It seemed at times like one of their receivers had the ball in his hand within 1.5 seconds of it being snapped. That's tough to defend against.
While the defense was frustrating at times (the fourth quarter), they ultimately got the job done. The line and linebackers did well at times to rush a quick release QB and they caused a few fumbles at key times and recovered two of them. The interception on the final play of the game was huge too. Hawaii's offense returned a lot of players from '05 and us holding them to 17 is what USC did on opening day of last season (they averaged 30 points per game last year.) Though I was wringing my hands during the game, with a few days to think about it, they did pretty well for having seven new starters against such a potent, crazy offense.
As usual, the play calling on offense leaves much to be desired. It's conservative to a fault and certain personnel on the field are a sure sign that certain plays are about to be run. Some variety in play calling out of certain formations or mixing up personnel would greatly help us become less predictable. Not going for that fourth and 1 made me want to scream. We ended up taking a delay of game penalty and only got Fitzgerald a few more yards to punt on Hawaii's side of the field. It wasted only a few seconds and Hawaii was back to where we had the ball in one play. If it failed, we really didn't give much up; if we succeed on the fourth and one, we can kill another minute or two off of the clock and maybe score another FG to put the game out of reach.
Even though we ultimately escaped by the skin of our teeth, the overall philosophy worked as much as I hate to admit it. We had 35:44 in possession. Having the ball 11:32 more than Hawaii was important and I'm sure the huge disparity in time of possession was part of the plan. The third quarter in particular was huge in this stat with Bama controlling the ball for 11:56. The other team having the ball for only three minutes in a quarter is incredible. That being said, Hawaii scored on a 3 play, 50 yard drive in 1:12 in the 3rd quarter.
It was a good win for a fairly inexperienced team with many new starters at key positions. Hawai'i is the best opening day opponent we've had since UCLA (recent openers include: South Florida, Middle Tennessee State, Utah State) and it was good to see the team do well against fairly solid competition. Hopefully bugs on both sides of the ball will be worked out in time for the SEC opener against Vanderbilt this weekend.