So the question is: was that offensive performance a one-time affair, a fluke? Fluky bad performances aren't unheard of even for good teams, as you will realize if you can cast your memory all the way back to, say, the 2008 Tulane game, the 2009 Tennessee game, or the 2011 Georgia Southern game.
There are some reasons to think it might be. For one thing, both teams' play was very much influenced by the field conditions; there were seven fumbles and a bobbled field goal snap in the game, and those plays were spread pretty evenly between the two teams. Not that the FOUR!!! return fumbles are to be laughed off, but that's not why this game was so close.
Its almost certain that Alabama will fumble less going forward, especially on special teams. Any analyst of football stats will tell you that fumble stats are famous for regressing to the mean, which for you non-statisticians basically means that past results are a poor predictor of future performance. And special-teams wise? Alabama just fumbled 6 kick returns in 5 quarters of play. I've never seen anything remotely like that in half a century of watching football, and I feel very comfortable in saying that it will not continue at that pace. It's possible we will have more return fumbles as the season goes along, but they'll slow down, you have my personal guarantee on that. (Which, along with a $5 bill, will get you a grande mocha soy latte at Starbucks.)
The real question is whether that offensive line play is going to continue the same going forward, and the answer there may have something to do with OL health. On the throw-enough-crap-against-the-wall-and-something-will-stick principle, I said something about this in last week's From The Couch, specifically "Kelly's loss may be disastrous if he misses much time. Or it may not; we'll just have to see how Bozeman pans out." It's worth noting that the Bama offense died suddenly last week when Kelly got hurt, doing absolutely nothing for a quarter and a half until the desperation, game-ending drive. And then yesterday. At this point there's pretty significant reason to believe that "disastrous" was the right word.
Arie Kouandjio missed two days of practice this week himself, and was reportedly seen in a boot after Saturday's game. Alphonse Taylor spent most of the game at right guard instead of Leon Brown. I don't know whether that was health related or not, although speaking of throwing crap against the wall, last week I said it looked like Brown had locked the job down. (Oops.) It is worthy of note, though, that Bama's only sustained touchdown drive, in the fourth quarter, came with Brown on the field.
And how about Austin Shephard? After being the rock of our line for 17 games and making few mistakes that entire time, Shephard's man got into the backfield to stop Bama running plays on multiple occasions. Is Shephard hurt, too? I've got no reason to think so other than that he simply hasn't played a game like that before yesterday.
Not that it was all on the OL, not by any means. Nothing on the offense worked right, not even Amari Cooper. Every single unit - OL, quarterback, running backs, receivers - had its worst game of the year. Put them all together and it stunk. Was it just a temporary psychological down that spread throughout the team? Is every offensive player a "bad mudder?" Whatever it was, the results were dramatic. That offense was not even comparable to the Bama offense of any other game - unless you want to talk about the part of the Ole Miss game where Kelley was missing.
Remember, it was only two weeks ago we were crowing about the best offense of the Saban era. We didn't just make that up, either, Sims and the Bama O were impressive against Florida. It was only yesterday that they stunk.
The defense, thankfully, was another story. Left on the field for 79 plays by the putrid offense, the defense never gave in and never wore down. To play 79 plays against a solid power attack fronted by the biggest offensive line in all of football, and still hold the Hogs to 4.25 yards per play, a better per-play average than all but three defenses in all of college football can boast, is an extraordinary performance. The defense played nearly as well as the offense played poorly, and is beyond any doubt the reason that Alabama escaped Fayetteville with a W.
As a side note, last week's squeaker road loss looks a lot better after Ole Miss went into College Station and ripped Texas A&M a new one. The two Mississippi teams really do appear to be the best teams in college football right now.
I can't be on twitter during the game anymore. Some of y'all's negativity is really giving me leg pains— Kenyan Drake™ (@KDx17) October 12, 2014
Last week I thought Blake Sims' performance against a tough D on the road was encouraging. There was pretty much nothing encouraging about his play yesterday. I still think Sims can play quarterback in this league, but I am worried about his confidence, both about whether he can keep it and about what might happen if he doesn't.
Sims managed not to turn it over yesterday, but he has luck to thank for that, as he threw what should've been two easy picks, and a couple more balls were probably pick-able by great plays that fortunately didn't happen. Even his running was off: he was nailed for a deep sack running backward from the line at one point, his first really ugly sack of the season, and time and again his scrambles came up a little short of the first, often on third down. And then there was the sneak. . . .
Blake's two biggest plays of the game were off scrambles, though. Both of Bama's TDs came when Sims found open guys after being flushed from the pocket. Those plays showed that, even when playing poorly, the guy can keep his head about him.
For the second straight week, Alabama didn't really try to stretch the defense with downfield throws, which was likely a contributor to the running game's failures. Does Sims have a lingering shoulder injury after all? There's sure a huge difference between his pre-injury stats and his post-injury stats.
Finally, let's take some perspective. It wasn't Greg McElroy mid-season 2009 bad. Over a 4-game stretch against teams who averaged 5.5 losses on the season and who each lost at least 4 games - Kentucky, Ole Miss, South Carolina and UT - McElroy completed 58-109 for a putrid 507 yards, with 2 TDs and 2 picks over the 4 games. That's 4.6 yards per attempt, which really stinks. Even yesterday, Sims was 11-21 for 161 yards, a respectable 7.7 yards per attempt, and threw for a couple of touchdowns.
Sims hasn't hit those depths. And if you'll recall, that 2009 team didn't turn out so bad.
There's really little good to say here.
Yeldon wasn't bad, and ran hard when he got an opening, but he didn't run particularly well when he didn't have an opening. At least two or three times he turned tentative when the first hole wasn't open and failed to maximize his possibilities. T.J. carried 16 times for 45 yards, under 3 yards a clip, and also totally whiffed his blocking assignment on the 3rd-and-6 play from the 8-yard-line that ended in a sack and was immediately followed by the missed short field goal.
I'm not even entirely enthusiastic about Yeldon's one big play, the pass reception off Sims' scramble that turned into a TD. It worked out fine, of course, but as I've written a few times, I'm not crazy about the full arms-length extension of the football, especially when you're already under wraps. 1st-and-goal at the 1 or the 2 is fine! Especially with the wet football yesterday that caused so many problems, that was a risky maneuver, and unnecessary.
Henry couldn't get going in relief, either. Really the first two ineffective games he has had have come immediately after Drake went down, i.e., the first time we really haven't had much of an alternative.
Or did we? Considering Yeldon and Henry's lack of success, wouldn't a touch or two for native Arkansan Altee Tenpenny have been in order? Guys tend to perform well against the old homies.
Nothing worked here, either. Is Amari Cooper toothless on a wet track - or is he hurt? Whatever the answer is, #9 was never open and didn't beat people when he had the ball in his hands. Yes, Arkansas put a lot of emphasis on him, but that's not the entire answer. He wasn't himself.
On the play where Cooper got up slowly and was helped from the field, I didn't see anything in particular happen to his legs on the replay. It's not unheard of for a bad injury to be invisible to onlookers - remember Brodie Croyle's knee injury? - but usually you can see what happens. The fact that you could not see any injury happening on that play proves nothing but suggests that we may have been looking at a re-injury, not an injury.
Nobody else filled in the blanks Cooper left open. DeAndrew White was solid, but we didn't really try for him downfield. I didn't see Chris Black on the field, and he's not listed in the participation charts, perhaps due to a rumor of extracurricular practice field activity. But even if Black was in the doghouse, where was ArDarius Stewart? How about this Robert Foster guy who was supposed to be the 2nd coming of Julio? We're deep into his second season, and he still hasn't seen meaningful action.
If Cooper is hurt, let's throw to somebody else. All of Sims' near-picks Saturday were intended for #9.
The plunge in play from the offensive line was baffling and very worrisome. Alabama came into the game averaging over 240 yards rushing per game and over 5 yards a pop, but against Arkansas got only 66 yards on 32 carries, an unacceptable 2.1 per. The Tide also gave up two sacks for the first time this season, and Blake Sims spent a lot of time running away from trouble. If play like yesterday continues, 2014 will be a season to forget.
The easiest explanation starts with the known injuries to Kelly and Kouandjio, and as noted above, I'm also wondering whether Shephard and Brown were playing at full speed. Field conditions were likely also a factor, as was cohesion with a new center starting off the plays, and you have to think, as well, that all these factors together left the OL playing without confidence.
Line penalties were down, and big #74, at least, played a solid game, but otherwise there is little good to say about this unit other than that their play earlier this season merits the hope that this game was an outlier. For one thing, if the wet track was a factor, it isn't likely to be that bad again. For another, while the Tide certainly needs to get healthier soon and either get Kelley back or learn to play nicely with Bozeman, the next two opponents might not have the defensive horses to punish poor line play. Hopefully we will have Kelley back and ready to go by November 8 when we visit Baton Rouge, or at least by November 15 when the nation's currently top-rated team comes calling.
Perhaps the most notable thing about the defensive line play was not the play of any single player but that, as a group, the line kept their gaps and didn't get pushed around. The vaunted Razorbacks' ground game came into the contest averaging 395.8 yards rushing per game and 6.9 yards per carry, but Alabama held them to 89 yards and a mere 2.3 per tote. The middle was constantly clogged.
Not to say that no individuals stood out. Xzavier Dickson led the line and tied for second on the team with 8 tackles, and on the season he leads all linemen in sacks, tackles for loss and tackles. He kept contain all day yesterday, and was actually seen downfield covering Allen's target twice, was in decent position both times, and caused a 3rd-down throwaway with tight coverage the second time.
Ryan Anderson continues to do a solid job spelling Dickson. Dickson and Anderson get the most consistent pass-rush pressure on the team. Clocking in at 268 and 258, respectively, the two are considerably lighter than Bama DEs of the recent past. The successes of these two are an argument for a little more speed on the line and a little less bulk.
Not that the Tide shouldn't, obviously, keep a few 300+ horses around, though. A'Shawn Robinson has come on gradually and steadily from a slow start to 2014, and had his best game of the season Saturday. Robinson recorded 5 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, and a forced fumble.
Jonathan Allen was slowed most of the day by double-teams. Jarran Reed had another tipped pass, and his 5 passes broken up on the season leads the entire team, including the defensive backs.
Reggie Ragland continues to fly to the ball and to play very physically. He led the team with 12 tackles, and even had a key pass coverage play in the 4th quarter smothering the tight end on an out pattern. Still, the other 3 times Ragland was thrown at turned into 2 first downs and a completion inches short of a third.
When Ragland was called for pass interference - probably touchdown-saving - on a deep ball to the tight end, though, you have to wonder where his safety help was. The only other Bama defender in the picture was Dillon Lee who, like Ragland, was in full losing-this-chase mode. Lee got his most competitive gametime play Saturday, and didn't particularly distinguish himself, getting pantsed in the open field by running backs twice.
I would like to give Trey Depriest more credit on the TD-saving fumble, but the reality is that it was a wet-ball fumble caused by the receiver changing hands with the ball, exactly like Cyrus Jones' punt return fumble. Depriest did hit the guy hard, but he was too late to stop the TD, and the ball actually started coming out before the hit. The reality is that the play was just another mediocre pass coverage effort from a guy who isn't built to cover passes. Depriest was also blown by in the open field by Jonathan Williams on a 10-yard run in the 1st quarter, although later #33 did make a very nice one-on-one play on a back in the flat. He finished with 6 tackles.
I saw Tim Williams out there twice, and he got serious pressure on the quarterback both times - although his missed tackle on Allen on a 3rd-and-15 blitz led to a 14-yard scramble.
Our biggest problem in pass defense seemed to come from scheme/coaching, and not from a particular player. But every time Arkansas lined up on the left hashmark and a receiver ran a crossing pattern across the field, he ran free. I saw this happen four times, and it finally led to a 54-yard touchdown pass. That has to be fixed.
Cyrus Jones continues to be our best pass-coverer, and also a good tackler. His play is rapidly reaching all-star level. I didn't like his finger-pointing after one completion in the third quarter, but in his favor he was probably right to point a finger: it was after one of those crossing patterns we never covered.
Eddie Jackson had the other corner this week, and it is evident that, at least at this point, his competition is with Tony Brown, not with Jones. Jackson was picked on, and gave up multiple good gainers. Twice he gave up first-down passes on slants to the tight end on third-and-long, missed a tackle on a 12-yard-run when the running back blew right by him (and was very lucky not to get called for pushing the guy in the back a full yard after he went out of bounds), and gave up a 16-yard completion to A.J. Derby right after the pass interference on Ragland. Jackson didn't have coverage on the long TD pass to Derby, but he was the guy who had good safety position on the receiver only to give up the corner and get blown by, and to top it off he allowed himself to be stiff-armed out of the play in pursuit.
Jackson made some good plays, too. Nice coverage on a 3rd-and-6 post pattern in the first quarter led to a throwaway, and Jackson blitzed effectively twice, recording an 11-yard sack. He also jumped a slant route nicely with about 2 minutes left in the game, although I'm not sure he had safety help, and jumping a route before the ball is delivered can get you burned badly if the receiver turns upfield. Worst case comes to pass, and that nice play costs us the game.
Overall, I wouldn't mind seeing Brown get another shot. I think I liked his play against Ole Miss better than Jackson's against Arkansas. It's not an easy call, as the two players have a lot in common: they're both talented but they're both a little green and get picked on a bit. But I like Brown for the upside and speed; I don't think Derby would've beaten him to the corner on that TD pass.
Nick Perry gave up a couple of mid-range sideline completions, but neither play was wide-open and Allen had all day both times. Perry made a fine move to shove the Arkansas tight end out of bounds before his foot came down on a 1st-and-10 sideline pass with 2:15 left.
Jarvis Williams didn't play a lot, but he made some plays: a 3rd-down pass breakup with about 5:00 left in the game, and good coverage forcing an incompletion with about 2:30 left. He also had a tackle for loss earlier.
Disaster, part two. But if you take out the fact that the 2nd straight lightning strike tends to be a little more exasperating that the first, I'm not quite as worried about this disaster as last week's. The real disaster part was the return fumbles, and as I've already explained, I just don't expect that to happen again.
Still, to fumble three punts without an Arkansas player ever even touching the ball or the fumbler? Jeez. I think Nick Saban is about seven years older than he was yesterday morning, and as for me, I don't think I've ever felt quite that same sense of vertigo and impending doom just because a punt has hit the ground and is rolling around.
At least Landon Collins didn't fumble the kickoff return until an Arkansas guy actually put a hat on the ball.
But kickoff coverage was decent, and while Griffith missed a 30-yard field goal, he only missed it by inches and it was high and strong. I actually feel a little better about his kicking than I did last week, since I read during the week that the shanked field goal last week was caused by the holder taking his finger off the ball before it was kicked. Take out last week's shank, and Griffith has gotten good leg into every field goal attempt and is a semi-acceptable 8-11 on the season.
J.K. Scott is a punter who is going to be 3-and-out, that's pretty clear. How high do great punters go in the draft, 3rd round, 4th? Ray Guy went in the first, but he was Ray Guy (and also an honorable-mention All-American safety at Southern Miss). However high the best ones who aren't Ray Guy go, that's how high Scott looks to go, because he is clearly in that group. He was just amazing yesterday: 60-yarders when we needed 60, 32-yarders when we needed 32, and consistently hitting unreturnable punts right over by the sideline. Enjoy him.