What, exactly, did I just watch?
Some initial impressions from the Colorado State game:
This game was a strange one from the outset. I don't know if it was the McElwain connection, the tough win last week against the Aggies, the suspensions and injuries, looking past a weaker opponent, or all of the above, but this game had the feel of a glorified scrimmage. Intensity and execution seemed to be lacking, guys who hadn't seen the field were getting meaningful time in a competitive situation, mistakes were happening everywhere, and none of it drew the expected reaction from Coach Saban. The Gump in me wants to believe that the game plan was more to survive this one than anything else akin to NFL preseason games where starters are routinely held out with sniffles and hang nails, but what we saw on the field has to raise concerns.
First, the positives. The passing game was, by and large, efficient if not spectacular. AJ finished 20/26 for 258 yards, a healthy 9.9 yards per attempt. Christion Jones took on the role of possession receiver, hauling in nine passes for 90 yards, and DeAndrew White stretched the field with two catches for 65 yards including AJ's lone TD pass. OJ Howard showed flashes as a vertical threat for the second consecutive week. Curiously, the intermediate-to-deep pass seemed to be available whenever we wanted it, but very few downfield shots were taken. TJ Yeldon came off the bench to rip off a beautiful 38 yard run to provide one of very few offensive highlights on the night. Cody Mandell punted well, averaging 45.0 yards per punt, though he did have two touchbacks. Landon Collins continues to be a human highlight reel on special teams and saw increased playing time on defense as well. The defense did what it was supposed to do against an overmatched opponent, allowing only 2.0 yards per carry and 6.0 yards per pass attempt while allowing CSU to cross midfield only twice. Considering that the starting CBs were Bradley Sylve and Eddie Jackson, those are numbers we can live with. Kenyan Drake blocked a punt affording Dillon Lee a scoop-and-score opportunity.
Now to the negatives or, as they like to say in the corporate world, "opportunities." We'll start with the obvious- our much-maligned offensive line. Folks, this unit was an unmitigated disaster for the second time in three games managing a paltry 3.1 yards per carry against a Rams front that yielded 152 yards on 22 carries to Tulsa RB Trey Watts and 203 yards on 41 carries to the mighty Cal Poly Mustangs. Senior NT Calvin Tonga dominated the interior of the line all night. At this point it's fairly evident that Ryan Kelly is incapable of handling even a pedestrian NT one-on-one. Arie Kouandjio looked confused again for much of the night and seemed quite slow when asked to pull. Kellen Williams started at RG in place of Anthony Steen, providing the only possible saving grace that our best OG wasn't in the game. Cyrus Kouandjio was flagged for holding again and looked shaky for much of the night. Austin Shepherd may well have been the best offensive lineman on the field. Allow that to marinate for a minute. The third down conversion attempts were puzzling to say the least as the team finished with a paltry 20% success rate, with several passes caught just short of the sticks. Kickoff and punt returns were mediocre at best, and Cade Foster looked rough on two field goal attempts missing one badly and barely clearing the crossbar on a 46-yard attempt that should be well within his range.The thought of Cade lining up to kick an important FG with a big game on the line is nothing short of terrifying.
Excuses for a mediocre performance abound as several key contributors watched this one from the sidelines. As mentioned, Bradley Sylve and Eddie Jackson started at CB in place of John Fulton and Deion Belue. Belue was out with a toe injury along with starting "Star" CB Jarrick Williams and reserve safety Nick Perry. The fact that John Fulton didn't start the game despite that level of attrition speaks volumes about his place on the depth chart at this point. True freshman CB Maurice Smith saw his first significant action of the season as well. Anthony Steen missed the game with headaches following concussion-like symptoms initially felt toward the end of the Texas A&M game. Amari Cooper and Kevin Norwood were held out with injuries, Saban intimating that Cooper was strictly precautionary. Jalston Fowler started the game in place of suspended TJ Yeldon.
All things considered it's really difficult to take much away from this performance. The Tide played like a worn out, wounded team more concerned with going through the motions and avoiding injury than dominating a fired-up bunch from Colorado State that should not be able to match up with this Alabama team in any phase of the game. The best you can say is that we got a win, some significant game action for some young players, and seemingly emerged as healthy as we started. As I said after the opener, I have seen Alabama under Saban sleepwalk through games like this one too many times only to come out firing against better competition to write them off as contenders at this point, but it goes without saying that effort and execution must improve dramatically to avoid an upset next week at the hands of an Ole Miss bunch that would love to walk out of Bryant-Denny with a 2012 Texas A&M-style signature win in its pocket. Here's hoping the players and coaches find a way to get it turned around before then.