A few early thoughts from the initial aftermath of Alabama's 38-14 victory over Arkansas:
Given the quality of opponent, was that the best performance by an Alabama team since December of 2009 against Florida in the Georgia Dome? For perhaps the first time post-Pasadena, the performance yesterday afternoon seemingly personified a team that looked poised to seriously compete for a national championship. A few, relatively minor nitpicks can be made, but perfection is really just an abstract and in real terms the level of play yesterday afternoon was as high as could reasonably be expected. 'Bama re-established the running game, stopped the run, pressured the quarterback, covered on the back-end, found big plays on special teams, and in general simply played a complete game.
As has been the case in three of the previous four meetings between these two schools, big plays once again doomed the Hogs yesterday afternoon. On a per-play basis Arkansas played a relatively even game with the Tide, but several big negative plays turned the game into a lopsided affair. 'Bama picked up fourteen points on special teams, another seven on a pick-six taking advantage of some Arkansas miscommunication, and another touchdown on a screen pass that was well defended and which, frankly, should have been intercepted. Those four plays ended in 28 points, and in reality ended any real chances of Arkansas pulling off the upset.
Those plays also produced the side effect of making it difficult for Arkansas to play the Tide defensively as they had hoped. Clearly the strategy coming in was to load the box against the run -- five man fronts were a staple of the Hogs early defensive alignments and the safeties were active in run support -- and force A.J. McCarron to beat them by making plays vertically in the passing game. With big play after big play and the deficits mounting, however, and 'Bama consistently running the football on the ground, Arkansas could never put McCarron in those difficult situations. Instead, McCarron had the luxury of throwing countless designed screens, quick outs, slants, and check-downs and really didn't have to make a difficult throw all afternoon.
None of that should necessarily denigrate McCarron, mind you, simply because he generally played within the confines of the system and did what was required of him. Having said that, however, as Nick Saban alluded to in the postgame press conference, 'Bama still needs to do a better job of throwing the football vertically down the field and the dink and dunk passing game will face stiffer resistance in the weeks ahead as teams just choose to sit on those routes. Arkansas did that somewhat yesterday and in all honesty should have picked off two screen passes to Trent Richardson. McCarron has done well to date, to be sure, but at some point later in the year he will have to actually make some plays vertically in the passing game.
And speaking of those big plays, bet the proverbial bottom dollar that Bobby Petrino is kicking himself for not calling a timeout when Alabama shifted out of the field goal formation on the opening drive. Given the length of the field goal and the typical incompetence of Cade Foster on kicks of that length, Arkansas should have been in a base defense anyway, but at the least when Alabama shifted and stood at the line for no less than five seconds, Petrino should have just stopped the game and discussed it with his defense. 'Bama would have probably just punted at that point, having had the Hogs call its bluff on the fake, but Petrino let events unfold uninterrupted and he paid the price for it.
Arguably the most refreshing sight of the day was the return of effectiveness up front on the offensive line. Aside from the goal-to-go fiasco in the first half, the line finally played effectively on a consistent basis. A.J. McCarron was given time to throw the football, and the running game had its best day since the Penn State game a year ago. Part of that was probably assisted by key injuries to Arkansas at defensive end -- 'Bama had great success going off-tackle and attacking the edges of the Arkansas defense -- but even so William Vlachos had his best game in some time, Anthony Steen had his best performance to date, and Chance Warmack shook off an early mental mistake to close with a strong showing. 'Bama still has to show it can play like this on a consistent basis moving forward and dispel any notions that this was a one-off performance, but in any case this was the type of performance that 'Bama needs up front to fight its way to New Orleans.
With the offensive line returning to form, it should come as no surprise that both Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy had strong days. Lacy fought off an early foot injury, and combined with Richardson the duo posted 187 rushing yards and averaged over six yards per carry. Richardson and Lacy have gotten much of their yards to date the hard way, but if 'Bama can consistently give these two an opportunity with strong line play they'll routinely post gaudy stat lines and make life much easier for A.J. McCarron.
Defensively, the pass rush finally took off and made a major impact against a top-end opponent for the first time in recent memory. Don't let the lack of sacks fool you, 'Bama generated consistent pressure on Tyler Wilson all afternoon and dictated the Arkansas offense accordingly. Wilson was hit and hit hard on no less than ten occasions, and the fact that he averaged only eight yards per completion is conclusive evidence of just how much the rush compressed the passing game and forced Arkansas to get the ball out quickly.
With the pass rush finally taking off, the rest of the defense just fell into place accordingly. The run defense is showing shades of 2008 and 2009, and unlike a year ago when 'Bama merely limited the run, this year the Tide is actually stopping the run with authority. Arkansas finished yesterday with a mere 17 rushing yards off of 19 carries, and, outside of the one touchdown run called back due to the open field tackle 'Bama linebacker Trey DePriest, never even legitimately showed any signs of life. The defensive backfield was as strong as expected, and after struggling on the second possession of the game quickly settled into rhythm with the Arkansas offense and allowed almost nothing from that point moving forward.
Additionally, I would be remiss if I did not make specific mention of senior linebacker Jerrell Harris. In the previous four years that Nick Saban has been at Alabama the Sam linebacker has rarely been an every-down contributor to the base defense and for the past three years Harris has been the highly-touted linebacker who looked like Zeus and played like Athena. Yesterday, however, the Sam was practically an every-down player against Arkansas' spread sets and he played at a very high level in both run support and pass coverage. It's nice to see Harris finally put it all together, and with little doubt yesterday was his finest hour. If he can play like that moving forward, 'Bama can add another piece to an already outstanding defense.
With C.J. Mosley seeing little playing time yesterday afternoon due to the elbow injury, 'Bama shuffled several younger players in his place, and for the most parts the returns were bullish. Trey DePriest saw a good deal of meaningful playing time yesterday, and provided the strong physical presence that most have come to expect. Adrian Hubbard also saw some time and did very well, including the delivery of a hard shot to Wilson on the third quarter touchdown pass. Losing Mosley isn't easy because 'Bama doesn't necessarily have someone else with his range at inside linebacker, but it was refreshing to see that other players came into the game and played at a high level.
Perhaps it's only fitting that two years after suffering a season-ending knee injury against the Hogs that we can probably say Dont'a Hightower is now officially back. He was explosive yesterday as a pass rusher, very stout in run support, and for the first time in ages he made plays in space in pass coverage. His stuffing of Dennis Johnson on fourth and short in the late third quarter effectively ended the game and based on his recent play it seems like Hightower is back to the point that he can legitimately be considered a difference-maker again.
In other quick thoughts, C.J. Mosley looks to have avoided serious injury to his right elbow and could return shortly, but his absence against the speed of Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey could be a concern for the Crimson Tide. D.J. Fluker had some issues in pass protection but was impressive against the run. The punting game remains a disaster. Give Bobby Petrino credit for recognizing that the game was over and throwing in the towel to protect Wilson. 'Bama had some issues covering tailbacks out of the backfield, but generally excelled in doing everything else defensively. Michael Williams continues to develop. Dre Kirkpatrick hasn't filled out his frame any, but he's gotten stronger and is noticeably more physical as a player. Cyrus Kouandjio looked solid in mop-up duty at left tackle.
All in all, consider yesterday afternoon an unqualified success for the Crimson Tide. Of the remaining foes on the schedule between now and the bowl season, only LSU looks to be near the level of Arkansas, and on a day when any win in any form would have been taken by all with great relief and exhilaration, Alabama exceeded expectations many times over by thoroughly thumping the Hogs in Tuscaloosa. Much football remains to be played, and the road trip in six days to Gainesville will require another strong performance, but for the time being enjoy a big early season victory and arguably the best performance from the Crimson Tide in quite some time.