A few early thoughts from the initial aftermath of Alabama's 34-0 victory over Vanderbilt:
Given the strength of the performances against Arkansas and Florida, something of a letdown was probably expected against Vanderbilt, but the opening half was perhaps more sluggish than most anticipated. Give Vanderbilt credit for taking advantage of the off week and coming prepared to play, but even so a largely uninspiring first half performance by the Tide that had Nick Saban visibly upset at the lack of emotion and intensity. All was rectified in the second half, but given the early ugly performance we should feel fortunate having Vanderbilt on the opposing sideline last night.
Vanderbilt opened the game defensively by trying to stop the run with numbers and blitzes, and for most of the half they had good success. 'Bama went three and out on the opening drive, and despite a lone touchdown drive the offense largely sputtered. The running game was limited by the defensive strategy and after some early success in the short passing game via screens and crossing routes, the Vandy defense quickly accounted for that in their zone coverages and the 'Bama offense struggled to move the football. Nursing a 7-0 lead late in the second quarter, Alabama was able to stretch the field vertically on the incomplete pass that resulted in a drive-extending pass interference call and from there the passing game opened up a bit, but for the most part the offense was lifeless in the first half.
The 'Bama defense fared little better in the first half and had issues of their own. Larry Smith had some surprising success early before being sent to the sideline -- Alabama's third quarterback casualty in eight days -- and in general the slow starts continued for the defense. Vandy picked up roughly 130 yards on their final three drives of the half and with better special teams play could have taken a 7-6 game to the locker room. Not bad play overall, mind you, just not what would have been expected against an offense ranked 117th nationally playing with a back-up quarterback.
All first half struggles, however, were quickly cast aside in the second half and in general the difference between the two halves was almost night and day. The defense forced a three-and-out on the opening drive of the half, and the offense responded by grinding out a 90-yard touchdown drive that saw eleven runs on twelve plays for the Tide. With a 21-0 deficit the 'Dores looked defeated, and as has been the case in recent weeks the defense followed up a sluggish start with a dominating performance. Vanderbilt mustered all of 35 yards of total offense on 19 plays in the second half, and as the 'Bama offense came to life the sluggish early performance gave way to a second half snoozer.
Trent Richardson had some tough yards last night against a strong Vanderbilt defense and lacked the assistance of Eddie Lacy, but on the whole he had another strong day and simply got better as the game went along. He put the offense on his back to start the second half, and when nothing else works offensively Richardson is seemingly always the stopgap of last resort. Enjoy Richardson the second half of this season because his time in Tuscaloosa is coming to an end in early January.
The passing game still has to be the single biggest concern on the team, and as the season progresses the bulk of the concern seems to be shifting from McCarron to the wide receiver corps. For all of the preseason concerns with McCarron, he has played smart football to date and has generally played at a high level. The lack of size in the wide receiver corps, however, has all but eliminated the short-to-intermediate passing game and we have not been able to consistently throw the football down the middle of the field. As a result the passing game as a whole has been largely reduced to a melange of screen passes, short crossing routes, and deep go routes. That lack of size has taken away the multidimensional element that you ideally prefer, and while that will not prove to be a fatal flaw against the likes of Vanderbilt, the LSU secondary is going to rightly view this as a weakness ripe for attack.
DeAndrew White had something of a breakout performance last night after going incognito for the past month. White reeled in five catches for sixty yards, including a long touchdown pass from AJ McCarron. Keep a close eye on White moving forward, as his development, or lack thereof, looks to have a big impact on the wide receiver corps as a whole. He's not all that big at roughly 6'0 and 185 pounds, but he's bigger than many wideouts we have, and with Michael Williams and Brad Smelley he will be one of the handful of receivers who could help cobble together a passable short-and-intermediate passing game that can attack the defensive interior.
Jalston Fowler saw his first meaningful playing time last night and generally looked solid. With his size he clearly lacks the explosive element, but he is very difficult to tackle and moves the pile with consistency. He lacks a clear role at this point because his specialty -- short-yardage conversions -- can be accomplished seamlessly by Richardson and Lacy, both power backs in their own right, but in time Fowler will have a meaningful role. He'll see more short-yardage opportunities next year, and while the lack of the explosive ability makes him less of an attractive option early in games against fresh defenses, in time he will be a potent weapon deep in the second half against tiring defenses.
In other quick thoughts, has there been a more pleasant surprise the past three weeks than Jerrell Harris? We might should find Blake Sims somewhere to play other than tailback. Courtney Upshaw, you're a linebacker, not a kicker; let's keep it that way, a'ight? Vanderbilt may have found a keeper in Jordan Rodgers. Cade Foster keeps making tackles on kickoffs, which is a bad sign. Adrian Hubbard and Alex Watkins are both regulars now in the rabbit package. Dre Kirkpatrick was beaten badly on a double-move route in the second half. Mark Barron could probably use the game film from last night as a highlight reel. The kicking game... don't ask. DeAndrew White's two touchdown catches were the most impressive seen in many years from a 'Bama wide receiver not named Julio Jones. Jesse Williams and Josh Chapman formed an almost impenetrable wall playing the defensive interior in short-yardage situations.
All in all, not the best overall performance for 'Bama by any stretch, but on the whole it's hard to make any serious complaints. Alabama could have clearly played better and will have to do so to beat LSU, but to the extent that for the overwhelming majority of the remaining games on the schedule will be against teams with .500 or lower records, a performance like we had last night will be more than sufficient. We couldn't beat a team like LSU or Oklahoma given how we played yesterday, but a performance like that ought to be more than sufficient against the likes of Ole Miss, Tennessee, and Mississippi State. Continuous improvement and development must be the hallmark of any championship contender and this Alabama team is certainly no exception, but with good injury luck and a 34-0 tally on the final scoreboard, consider last night a success even with the slow start and the first half struggles.