If I were asked to sum up Alabama's offensive performance this past Saturday, I would probably say something along these lines: It wasn't Shula-esque, but it wasn't a whole lot better either.
All told, we put up 24 points, and considering the circumstances of the situation, that's not particularly good. Javier Arenas -- and not the offense -- essentially scored seven of those points, when he set us up inside the one yard line with his sixty-nine yard punt return. If you factor out the gimme touchdown early -- and also the final drive where we took possession with under a minute to go and went to the quarterback kneel -- we had twelve possessions and those twelve possessions netted a grand total of seventeen points.
That might not be so bad if we were playing one of the top defenses in the country, but the Vanderbilt defense was bad last year, and likely won't be particularly good this year either.
And honestly, it basically all falls back on the passing game, or I should say the lack of an efficient passing game. On our second possession of the game, Wilson missed a wide open D.J. Hall, who was standing alone by himself in the back of the end zone, and on the fourth possession Wilson again missed a wide open Hall, this time as he was bound for the end zone on a go route. Two decent throws would have yielded fourteen points, and we would have found ourselves up 21-3 late in the first quarter.
You cannot overestimate the importance of those misses, you really cannot. Those two incomplete passes resulted in taking ten points off of the board for us, and as last year demonstrated to us, you just can't leave ten points sitting on the board when they are so easily for the taking. That alone is enough to sway a game one way or the other in conference play. Had we been able to get ten more points last year in every game, we'd finished 11-2, not 6-7. So, all told, it's just inexcusable.
Beyond those two throws, the passing game as a whole was just quite poor. We really struggled to throw the football down field, in particular to the wide receivers. All told, Wilson went 14-28 for 150 yards, but only six of those completions went to the wide receivers, for a grand total of only eighty-two yards.
If you break down Wilson's numbers based on the recipient of his throws, he did quite well dumping the ball off to the tailbacks and to the tight end. Throwing to them, Wilson went 8-11 for 68 yards. Aside from the interception (which granted was a terrible throw), Wilson threw the ball quite well underneath to the backs and the tight ends. Throwing to the receivers, however, was a very different story. Only two receivers had receptions (Hall and McCoy), and as a whole Wilson went 6-16 for 82 yards. Obviously, any time your quarterback has a completion percentage of 37.5% to your wide receivers, you have major problems throwing the football down the field.
All of that is particularly worrying when you take into account that last year, Vanderbilt's pass defense finished dead last in the conference (by a wide margin) in both completion percentage and quarterback rating.
And I don't mean to harp on Wilson, but the truth is that the overwhelming majority of the blame for the lack of the passing game lies at his feet. The pass protection was generally good (despite the sack given up by Marlon Davis), as was the running game, and the receivers looked pretty good too. At the end of the day, the biggest problem seemed to be Wilson's inaccuracy. We've already touched on the two missed touchdown passes, but that's only skimming the surface. There were several other examples as well. Take the 3rd and 3 mid-way through the second quarter. We've driven the ball almost 50 yards, and need three yards to pick up another first down. D.J. Hall runs an in-route at the depth of about seven yards, and gets good separation from the cornerback (i.e. he's open), Wilson throws a ball so far behind Hall that the Vanderbilt defender is able to rip the ball out. Hall is noticeably upset, and rightfully so. The next play, Tiffin misses just left on a 49-yard field goal, and we leave another three points on the board.
And it wasn't just the incomplete passes. Even the completed passes generally looked ugly. For example, McCoy runs an out route, a route in which the quarterback is supposed to throw the ball on a rope and essentially aim for the inside ear hole of the receiver. Doing so allows the receiver to catch the ball in stride, dip the shoulder and get up the sideline for yardage after the catch. Unfortunately, the pass is high and to the outside, and while McCoy makes a good grab, yardage after the catch is impossible at that point, and the gain is negligible. Again, even the completed passes were not particularly pretty.
At the end of the day, the offense simply must do better. The running game was encouraging, particularly the way the offensive line took over later in the game, but against much better opponents -- and rest assured most of the teams left on our schedule are indeed better than Vanderbilt -- we won't be able to just line up and run the ball with that kind of success. And even if we could -- which we obviously can't -- we'll nevertheless need to score more than seventeen points off of twelve drives. Sure, Arenas is a fine return man, but he won't consistently be able to set us up with those gimme touchdowns, and that's just a reality of the game. We're going to have to be able to throw the ball to the receivers much more effectively, while continuing to run the ball and prevent turnovers, in order for us to win games.
Bottom line: The offense was better this past Saturday than it was a year ago, but it still must improve.