A few initial impressions from the early aftermath of Alabama's 35-0 victory over Western Kentucky:
With the final scoreboard reading 35-0 in favor of the Crimson Tide, the easy takeaway is that Alabama controlled the game and played well, but that was not necessarily the case. The offense was sluggish, and while the defense forced some key turnovers, they were somewhat soft against the run and the defensive backfield remained a question mark. Moreover, all of commentary on the overall level of play obviously omits the ugly injury sustained by Jalston Fowler, which creates many other issues in its own right. Admittedly, Western Kentucky played relatively well and did enough to give some legitimacy to Nick Saban's mid-week comments, but most of the shortcomings for Alabama were head-scratching and self-inflicted.
Aside from some big plays in the passing game, generally an ugly, unimpressive performance by the 'Bama offense. The 35 points are well enough, but moving off the scoreboard and into the box sheet you find only 328 yards of total offense, only 17 first downs, top tailbacks averaged only four yards per carry, almost no explosive plays in the running game, 4-10 on third downs, and AJ McCarron was sacked six times. In fact, until true freshman Kenyan Drake broke off a long touchdown run in the late fourth quarter, 'Bama had under 300 yards of total offense on the day and had not charted a single explosive play in the running game. We would be remiss if we did not give some credit to the Western Kentucky defense for their role, but given the talent and depth of the Alabama offense a better overall level of play should be expected.
The line was arguably the biggest contributor to the offensive woes, with poor and inconsistent play becoming the norm for much of the afternoon. The offensive line simply never generated any real surge in the running game, and pass protection was shaky at best, particularly on the edges. Two of the sacks allowed were coverage related, and at least one came on a ball that AJ McCarron should have long since thrown away, but on several of those sacks Alabama had linemen who were outright beaten at the point of attack by opposing defenders. Tackle play was thought to be a real strength here with Cyrus Kouandjio and D.J. Fluker at tackle, but the same has become a growing concern given that two teams not exactly known for strong edge play have had repeated success against Alabama in the opening two games.
The bright spot on the offensive side of the ball was the downfield passing game, which was the main driving force behind the production the Alabama offense had. Kevin Norwood showed some explosive ability on his three catches, reeling in one long touchdown catch and a long catch-and-run to set up another touchdown. Christion Jones showed an ability to use his speed to become a viable vertical threat, and DeAndrew White was able to generate some separation despite not having the ball thrown his way very often yesterday afternoon. Nick Saban had been adamant in the Michigan postgame that 'Bama should have more explosive plays in the passing game, and the receivers responded accordingly against Western Kentucky.
Now, the proverbial elephant in the room is, of course, the left knee injury suffered by Jalston Fowler in the closing stages. While we hope for the best, only rarely will there be that much hyper-extension and not have significant structural damage result. In all likelihoold, Fowler will miss the remainder of the season and will undergo major knee surgery in the coming days. Perhaps the MRI will bring some surprisingly good news, but in all likelihood it was mainly done so the medical staff could chart a more informed pre-operative plan. Hate to see it for his sake given that Fowler is a good kid and a hard worker, but hopefully he avoided truly catastrophic injury and can return to full health at some later point
Moving forward, the impact of the loss of Fowler is manageable, yet at the same time somewhat hard to understate. Starter designations are overrated, but he was clearly one of the best eleven on the offense, and with him on the sideline Doug Nussmeier's burgeoning I-formation variants now get tossed onto the scrap heap because Alabama does not have anyone else who can physically fill that role. Much of the formation versatility is limited now, and in all likelihood 'Bama will go back to its traditional attack of recent years. Perhaps more importantly, with the continued concerns over the health of Eddie Lacy, depth at tailback has become a legitimate concern. T.J. Yeldon takes on additional responsibilities, and both Dee Hart and Kenyan Drake now have tangible roles. The upside on the Fowler injury is that it comes at one of the deepest positions on the roster, but the harsh truth is that you cannot lose a player as talented and versatile as Fowler and not feel a fairly substantial negative impact.
Furthermore, while it 's largely academic to discuss at this point, the injury to Fowler was just an unforced error in personnel management. With a 28-0 lead against a Sun Belt Conference opponent mid-way through the fourth quarter, at home and with the ball at midfield, why is the first team offense still on the field and, perhaps equally as confounding, why are you throwing the football on first down at that juncture? Frustrations were understandably high over a lackluster performance and in that situation extra work is often enticing, but playing critical players in garbage time against weak opponents is practically just asking for unnecessary to disaster to strike, and that is exactly what happened on the leg whip to Fowler. Truth be told, Alabama ought to be highly relieved that it was not McCarron who was being carted off.
Defensively it was somewhat of the same story as the offense, with a strong showing on the scoreboard but underlying concerns on the field. Jesse Williams was held out as a precautionary measure following his mild concussion suffered against Michigan, and as feared the run defense was somewhat soft in his absence. Damion Square actually saw some time at nose guard, though Brandon Ivory and true freshman Darren Lake received the bulk of the reps. All three were respectable, but none of them were particularly imposing physically, and even with solid play at defensive end the front was not overly controlling in the running game. Obviously there was no real problem yesterday, but it does raise legitimate questions over what would happen if Williams misses time later in the season against an SEC opponent with a viable rushing attack.
The biggest concern, however, remains in the defensive backfield, which continued to look relatively unimpressive and unsettled in terms of personnel. Nick Perry actually got his first career start yesterday at safety opposite Robert Lester, but he rotated frequently with Vinny Sunseri and Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix and none of the three really stood out in any meaningful way in pass coverage. Likewise, John Fulton became an every-down player in the absence of DeMarcus Milliner, who was held out with a hip pointer, but while the additional reps should help later on down the road, he was never really meaningfully tested. Deion Belue looked more comfortable in his second appearance, and his interception led to an easy touchdown, but on the whole the defensive backfield just looks like one very big question mark right now. Lots of talent and potential across the board, but depth is non-existent at cornerback and for all of the bodies at safety no one has really emerged opposite Robert Lester.
On the upside, the play in the linebacker corps was generally very strong, and there were some bright spots at outside linebacker. Xzavier Dickson looked strong off the edge, and his sack-and-strip in the second quarter was both an impressive and important play. Meanwhile, opposite Dickson, Adrian Hubbard was used in a variety of roles and did good things both rushing the passer and dropping in coverage. On the inside, Trey DePriest was hampered a bit by his ankle injury, but that was more than compensated for by outstanding play from both Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosley.
In other quick hitters, is Blake Sims now the back-up quarterback? Arguably so, he was running the base offense through pre-game warm-ups yesterday with the second-team. Amari Cooper was complaining of side pain yesterday evening. Redshirt came off of Darren Lake yesterday. Brent Callaway had his right arm in a sling, though no word yet on the nature of the injury or the degree of severity. Cody Mandell posted a very strong stat line yesterday, but he raised some eyebrows with several low line drive punts with no real hang time. Cade Foster had better distance on kick-offs, though some were still returnable. Somewhat ugly play as a whole, but oddly enough 'Bama committed only one penalty yesterday. Tip of the hat to WKU middle linebacker Andrew Jackson, he will play on Sunday. For what it was worth, Nick Saban was relatively subdued in the postgame press conference, almost as if he expected things to play out like they did. Turnovers were a very big factor yesterday and went a long way to explaining the lopsided scoreboard yet relatively equal stat sheet. Western Kentucky turnovers led to two relatively easy 'Bama touchdowns, and the forced fumble by Xzavier Dickson cost the Hilltoppers points of their own in the first half.
On the whole, the final result in Tuscaloosa was as desired, but moving beyond the scoreboard it is exceedingly clear that it was not the best overall performance, and moving forward there are several areas that need to be addressed quickly. The road trip to Fayetteville was looming large yesterday, but the shocking upset at the hands of Louisiana-Monroe and injuries to Tevin Mitchel, and, possibly, Tyler Wilson have significantly changed that calculus. Much of the course in six days will depend on whether or not Wilson will play at all, and if so whether or not he will play for sixty minutes. Arkansas has been weak on defense and on the offensive line in the first two weeks, and without Wilson in the lineup they should be unable to stand toe-to-toe with the Tide. Nevertheless, even if Alabama looks to be a decided favorite this upcoming weekend in Fayetteville, the Tide needs to address some of its issues on both sides of the ball and play at a higher level than it did yesterday against Western Kentucky.