This article is going to be more of a sporadic collection of my thoughts from the aftermath of the Sugar Bowl rather than anything thesis driven. I choose this route because I've seen quite a bit of confusion and negativity following the loss to the Sooners. While I, unfortunately, can't explain away the loss, Oklahoma played a fine game and deserve respect for showing up in force, I can provide some reasoning as to why the Tide defense looked abysmal in New Orleans.
First and foremost, a pet peeve. I hate the "SEC" chant more than anything. I do root for the SEC (minus AU) because I like how all the other conferences have the little brother syndrome. When B1G or PAC fans start running at the mouth, it is always better to have the evidence of superiority rather than basing the argument on ridiculous reasons like they must. That said, there is no reason, at all, to chant at these OOC games. It makes the fanbase look classless and arrogant. These other teams, if they are being beaten soundly by an SEC foe, know that they are in an inferior conference, they don't need a reminder. It's like a player going for that extra long TD dance - there is no place for that in Alabama football. If you MUST do it, can I please ask that you do not do it after ONE drive with 59 more minutes to go in a game, like the fans at the Sugar Bowl on Thursday night did. Then not only do you look classless and arrogant, but you also look dumb when the other team controls basically the entire game.
Many fans that are unfamiliar with the play of Oklahoma may be upset at how out of sorts Alabama's defense looked against the Sooners. Upon closer inspection, it's really not as bad as it looks for the Tide. The fact is, Oklahoma, I suppose thinking that their offense had not had much success this season, took a gigantic risk in their game planning and offensive strategy for the Bowl.
Oklahoma's offense all year was a run first and play defense team. They didn't attempt many passes, and when redshirt freshman Trevor Knight was under center, they ran mostly a read option offense. Look at Knight's last three games of the regular season. Against Iowa State, he went 8-14 for 61 yards passing, and rushed 5 times for 17 yards. Against K State, he went 14-20 for 171 yards, and rushed 14 times for 82. In the season finale against Okie State, before getting injured in the second half, Knight was 3-7 for 28 yards, rushing 11 times for 47 yards.
Bama's defensive strategy should have been clear. Stop the read option, make Knight beat you through the air. There was no evidence that Knight, a 52% passer, would have any success throwing the ball. What Kirby Smart and the defense did not consider, was that Oklahoma was planning to air raid the Bama D, throwing on 1st down most of the time. Give Knight credit, this strategy would have blown up in OU's face had he not come out focused. As we know, he completed 32-44 passes for 348 yards, and looked very sharp doing so. More telling are his rushing stats. 5 carries for 7 yards, including one scramble. So 4 designed runs. This "read-option" offense basically threw away the playbook and flanked the hell out of Mosley and crew.
Why didn't Bama adjust, you ask? Well, they tried. The coaching staff of Oklahoma knew that the secondary was Bama's weakness. It certainly showed. While the secondary did NOT play as badly as you probably think, I'll address that shorty, the strategy paid huge dividends for the Sooners. Most coaches, and commentator/analysts seem to think that, despite knowing the shortcomings of Bama's secondary, you must establish the run game to beat Bama. I, and I suspect many of you, know that this is not true at all. I prayed that this meme would continue forevermore, I loved nothing better than teams coming out and futilely running the ball straight ahead for limited yards and then punting it back. Finally, a coaching staff got it. Throw the hell out of the ball. Throw it short, throw it long, throw it in the middle. A running team all season, the Sooners predominately ignored the run and Knight threw the ball 44 times. He had only attempted 90 passes in the 12 games prior.
Another key to offensive success for the Sooners, the HUNH. The bane of my existence. If college football is a chess match, the addition of the HUNH turns it into Chutes and Ladders. No matter my personal theories, that this form of football will forever ruin a once magnificent sport, the fact is that it is here, it is widespread, and Bama's behemoth defenders are ill suited to defend it. Again, the Sooners showed no evidence of the hurry up during the season, but installed it during the month leading into the Sugar Bowl. They threw the ball to the edges, in fact, I counted 9 swing passes, designed to quickly get the ball to a 180 lb guy and let him play against your corner and safety on that side. This effectively took Bama's big DL and LBs out of the ball game. In addition to the 9 swing passes, they completed 5 screen passes, whether to backs or WRs. This play is designed to counter a heavy rush, again taking the DL out of play.
Credit where credit is due: Stoops and OC Josh Heupel came out with a brilliant game plan. They risked everything by completely changing their offense and it paid off. Coaches often call the bowl game a "one game season" and never was it more evident than here with the Sooners.
Now for the optimistic part. This game will rarely happen. I can't remember the last time I saw a team completely abandon their scheme just for one game. But there is the third major reason for the Sooners victory: Desire. I refuse to be like some, who compare this Bama game to the Utah Sugar Bowl, where Bama was deflated and ambivalent. Bama came out, and they played this game like it was the Sugar Bowl. Problem was, Oklahoma wanted it more than that. You could see it in their play: They were tired of the SEC media favor, they were tired of the assumptions that they would get blown out, and they saw Alabama as the face of that SEC thread that they had been arguing against for years. Every Sooner player wanted this game more than any other in their careers thus far. Almost every team Alabama comes against plays the Tide like it's their Super Bowl, Oklahoma played like it was the final game of their lives.
Secondary to Blame?
I feel like most Tide fans since the game have put most of the blame on the shoulders of the secondary. Why wouldn't you, with the numbers that Knight put up? Well yes, each member of the secondary had 1 or 2 plays that were not up to snuff. But re-watching the game, the criticism is well overblown. There were really only 5 plays that I could find any sort of coverage breakdown, I'll go through each one below. All other 27 completions thrown by Knight were swing passes at the line of scrimmage (9), screen passes (5), situations where the defenders had good coverage but a great throw or catch was executed (7), a situation where too much cushion was given to a receiver who made a short catch (3), or plays where OU completed a pass on 3rd down but were ultimately short of the first down (3).
Even the busts weren't really obvious busts. The first one I saw was with 5:30 left in the first, the linebackers dropped too deep in the zone and left Saunders open on a shallow cross where he gained 7 yards on a first down.
The second one was the hitch and go on top of Belue after Yeldon's costly fumble. Belue bites on the fake and tries to catch up, but a perfect throw hits Saunders in stride. The WR makes a Willie Mays over the shoulder catch for the score with Belue behind. Belue, knowing he has been abused pulls up at the end for a good view of the catch. In my opinion, this is the worst play of the night for the secondary, a result of Belue being too aggressive and biting on the move.
The third bust in coverage was early in the fourth when Jarrick Williams didn't turn to find the ball, and Sterling Shepard caught the ball with Williams right in his face. Jarrick was in the right spot, had he been able to locate the ball, it's at least a break up.
The fourth bust was more of a great throw and catch than bust. WR Bester gets the best of Eddie Jackson at the line, but Jackson is able to get back in good position with his speed. You can see from the image that it took a perfect throw to get it to Bester, and that's what Knight provided. This one hurt because it was 3rd and 15 (after a 1st and 30) and led to a 2 TD advantage for the Sooners.
A couple plays later, the TD throw was the 5th and final busted coverage. Again, this one is not very egregious, as the pressure pushed Knight to the sideline. Maurice Smith, in the game for injured Belue, gets caught up in the moment and pushes up field once Knight reached the sideline, leaving Landon Collins as the only Tide defender in the end zone to cover WR Shepard, who was moving back away from the sideline.
All of these required great QB and WR play to convert, and again, credit Knight and his group of receivers for getting it done.
The coverage was not superb, but it wasn't bad either. If the Alabama defense could do it all over again, with the same coverage, only improving 1 on 1 tackling on the edges, I think this game has a very different result.
AJ's last stand
I'm going to break the rules and address the Tide offense for a minute. Specifically the play of QB AJ McCarron. I have gone into detail defending the play of the Tide defensive backs, and I feel I owe you my thoughts on the reason for the loss. While it is a team game and everyone should shoulder the responsibility, if you look at the quarterback pressures as a measuring stick of the game, you will find a huge discrepancy. McCarron wilted under pressure from blitzes, while Knight thrived.
We all know that McCarron has struggled when facing pressure, I mentioned in the OU defense preview post that he buckles to the fetal position when he senses an unblocked defender. The OU defense picked up on this, and late in the first half, and late in the game, when pass was obvious, the Sooner defense had a field day. It honestly couldn't have been easier. Credit to AJ and all he has accomplished, he is without a doubt one of the best QBs to ever don Crimson, but his response to this pressure not only cost Alabama the Sugar Bowl, but will go a long way in the minds of NFL scouts. That and his lack of urgency when down 2 TDs and later 1 TD would prove fatal, as the defense, which played well in the second half, kept getting pushed out on the field.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the field, you may not remember how Trevor Knight did in the face of pressure, because he barely saw any all night. When Alabama did get someone in the backfield, it usually resulted in a positive play for the defense. A vanilla pressure scheme from Smart and the OU offensive play calling (swings and screens) prevented much pressure from reaching Knight. It was a wise strategy for an inexperienced QB. On the flip-side, I believe Alabama should have dialed up more quick throws for McCarron, as Mike Stoops blitzed repeatedly without consequence.
The Crystal Ball
The offseason will provide ample time to prognosticate on the future of the defense, but I am bullish. I believe the secondary will be much improved. There is no replacement for CJ Mosley, but Depriest coming back adds an experienced leader to the linebacking corps. I expect Trey to have a breakout season, I expect Eddie Jackson to cash in on the promise he showed this year, I expect the D Line to be the best it has been in the Saban era with Jon Allen and A'Shawn leading the charge. Sunseri at safety will give that vet presence on the back end, and Landon's transition to HaHa's vacated FS spot will be smooth with the offseason to learn the ropes.
It is certainly sad to see AJ leave after so long and so much success. But one thing it does provide to the team is a clean slate. Saban preaches that every season a team must find its identity. Think back, this year, the 2013 season, did we ever establish one? We had skill everywhere, but were we the tough, win it in the trenches team of the past few years? Were we the team that would drop 50 on you with an aerial attack? Were we a running team with a great defense that could not be penetrated? I think the answer to all those is no. Next season the question almost resolves itself as we break in a new signal caller. The clarity will be a good thing for 2014.
And don't worry about a Sugar Bowl type air raid game sneaking up on the Tide next year. We've got WV in game 1. That should answer many of the questions in the secondary, whether positive or negative, very quickly.