Our beloved Crimson Tide was back to Clemson beatdown form last night against the Hilltoppers, though I'm still not sure how much we've learned about our team other than they have the capabilities to be an efficient and imposing team against lesser opponents (i.e. Clemson and WKU), and possibly willing to overlook those that maybe weren't as bad as we thought. Looking at the clear improvement, though, has to be heartening for our fellow Tide fans:
The ability to convert third downs alone is the most significant improvement, as the Tide offense converted 9 of 14 (64%) against WKU versus the miserable 3 of 11 (27%) last week. Even more importantly, several of the 3rd down conversions were 3rd and long situations. On the opening drive alone, Wilson hit Julio Jones for a 9 yard gain on 3rd and 8 and Nikita Stover for 18 yards on a 3rd and 10, and was able to convert a 3rd and 13 with a 22 yard strike to Mike McCoy in the third quarter. The Tide also converted a 3rd and 13 with a screen pass from Greg McElroy to Terry Grant for a 22 yard gain. Also of note are the way all those third downs were converted. Outside of two third down runs by Upchurch to move the chains late in the game, no other player converted more than one third down (by recieving or rushing for it), meaning that, of the nine 3rd down conversions, seven different players
were involved (that's excluding JPW, of course, who passed for several of them). All in all, 17 different players touched the ball against WKU, ten of which were receivers and five of whom were running backs.
Looking at the QB play, there isn't much we can knock on this week. Pass protection was back up to par when some semblance of offensive line consistency returned with Andre Smith at LT (RG Marlon Davis still sat out, but David Ross filled in admirably after practicing all week at that position) and improved blitz pickups by the backs. Wilson also showed greater pocket presence by stepping up or scrambling out of harm's way, all while keeping his eyes down field and making a play or throwing it away instead of taking the sack or just scrambling aimlessly. The downfield passing finally materialized as well, with JP hitting a long of 22 yards and improving his yards per attempt to 8.0 from 3.2 against Tulane. We can criticize his interception, though, an incredibly poor decision on his part to throw into triple coverage. I thought we would survive it when the WKU defender missed the catch, but it was tipped to another WKU defender who set up the only WKU scoring drive of the night. Wilson recovered and returned to form afterwards, but after eliminating his poor habit of trying to throw in a crowd and coughing up fumbles, it was a little disappointing to see him make such a bad read after he hadn't turned the ball over yet this season.
The running backs and receivers all performed admirably during the game, and should all be commended for their improved efforts. Julio Jones had a breakout game, leading all receivers with 5 for 66 and the sole receiving TD by a receiver (TE Nick Walker had the other one), and there was plenty of spreading the ball around during quality time. Jones, McCoy, Stover (finally), Earl Alexander, and Marquis Maze all played some significant snaps and had quality grabs, while guys like Darius Hanks, Will Oakley, and backup TE Preston Dial also got some time in.
The running backs had quite a game as well, with five backs getting touches, four of them in quality game time. Coffee led all rushers with 97 yards on 11 carries (including a career long 51 yd run), while Mark Ingram had another monster night finishing with 51 yards and 2 TDs on 9 carries and sitting out the second half. Terry Grant finally materialized as the space back we've been waiting for, taking several quick tosses to the outside (out of the shotgun, no less, which was weird as hell to see) and making the most of his limited time with an 8 yard TD run and a 22 yard screen play to convert a 3rd and long. He finished with 39 yards on 8 carries.
Switching over to defense, they played about as well as anyone could have wanted despite giving up the first TD of the season. They held the Hilltoppers to only 9 first downs and 3 of 12 on third down, while forcing (and recovering, thank you Legend of Terrence Cody) a fumble and grabbing an INT as well. WKU managed only 158 total yards in the game (116 through the air and a paltry 42 on the ground). Not surprisingly, considering the spread style that WKU employed, the DBs wound up being four of the top five tacklers in the game. Rashad Johnson led all defenders with 7 stops (and a PBU), while Javier Arenas also had seven (four total and 3 assists) with a sack to his credit as well. Justin Woodall (who had the lone INT of the game for the Tide) and Kareem Jackson rounded out the top five with five tackles each, and true freshman LB Courtney Upshaw finished third on the team with six stops. It was another solid and convincing performance from the defense, and we were able to rotate in a lot of guys early on so take heart that we are getting the young guys plenty of experience while we have the opportunity.
Overall I was very pleased with the way the Tide went out and executed last night. They clearly learned their lesson (at least for this week) about not going out and giving it their all no matter who the opponent is, and the staff has to be proud of the way they responded. I still don't think we've really seen exactly what this team is made of, and don't think we will again this weekend at Arkansas (and the way UGA played yesterday, maybe not even in Athens), but I'm at least satisfied that we have guys that can make plays and a stout defense to go along with it.