We probably watched the two best defenses in the league go at it against a pair of decent offenses yesterday in Oxford in a game that - depending on what else happens to the two teams this year - might achieve classic status. Both teams made mistakes, but more good plays. Alabama won at the line of scrimmage but coverage breakdowns and a disastrous special teams effort (except for J.K. Scott) more than made up for that.
Somewhat shockingly considering the depth of the roster and three injuries to important players, Alabama's participation chart only shows 35 players seeing the field in the entire game. By contrast, Ole Miss put a more normal 58 players on the field. I wouldn't rule this out as the reason that Alabama clearly lost the 4th quarter, despite holding the ball for 75 plays to the Rebel
Ackbars' Black Bears (hence "RBBs") 63.
Speaking of injuries, those obviously hurt. Kenyan Drake's injury cast a pall over the entire game; whether we would have seen an entirely different effort from the Tide is unknowable, but certainly Alabama immediately made multiple offensive mistakes and was forced to punt in its immediate aftermath.
Denzell Devall's high ankle sprain will probably keep him out of a few games when we need depth, but we have enough horses at that position even without him. Drake's role in the passing game is irreplaceable, but probably not a key element of our attack, while his running contributions have always been curtailed by his ball-security issues. We will miss him, but there is talent in the wings. Ryan Kelly's loss may be disastrous if he misses much time, as it pretty much was yesterday. Or it may not; we'll just have to see how Bradley Bozeman pans out given a better chance to prepare.
Despite everything, Alabama got the ball back with a 17-10 lead with only 8 minutes left. But first Blake Sims threw behind an open Jalston Fowler and then T.J. Yeldon took one cut too many, and Bama found itself a half-yard short of the first and punting out of the end zone. That half-yard was fatal, as the next time the Bama O took the field was for a desperation drive trailing 24-17.
Finally, this edition of From The Couch won't be quite as detailed as it would have been if I hadn't derped away 3.5 hours of notes-taking in a gmail snafu. But maybe that's a good thing: this sucker tends to run a little long.
This was not Blake Sims' best game, but considering that his first road game start was against the first top-notch defense he has seen, it could've been much worse. We didn't see world-conquering Florida Blake Sims, but 2013-A-Day what-is-this-ball-thing-I-don't-want-it! Blake Sims didn't show up, either. Overall, I was a little relieved at his play in the clutch, to tell the truth. There are, to be sure, a few mistakes to be corrected, but if I were his coach, I'd pay more attention right now to keeping his confidence high enough to lead a late winning drive somewhere down the road. It's not going to get any harder than this.
The gameplan, at least until late, looked a lot like the kind of gameplan you would put in to protect a sore-armed quarterback, but Sims did not appear to lack his normal arm strength. His one deep throw, on the 53-yard gain to Howard, was laid right in there 32 yards downfield from the line of scrimmage. I wouldn't worry about the shoulder bruise going forward.
The game-losing pick wasn't quite there both physically and mentally. Nearly accurate but not, it was over the wrong shoulder, giving the cornerback first dibs on making a great play; if he doesn't, then Howard gets his chance to make a great play - but he did. It was a mental error to throw deep into double coverage, but you could almost justify it as a desperation play; if it worked, Roll Tide and today is a sweeter day.
Sims threw a couple more near-picks earlier, including an impatient toss across the middle on a crucial 3rd-and-4 fourth quarter play. Sims was not under pressure when he threw that one, and another half-second with the ball in his hands would've seen DeAndrew White popping into the clear, possibly for a big gainer. Instead, the Rebels got the ball back.
Blake's running was generally smart and timely again, including a great 4th-quarter scramble to avoid a deep sack. I continue to be very impressed with his decision-making in regard to whether to take off downfield on a scramble or set back up to look for a receiver. He is one of those quarterbacks who seems to sense when he is being chased from behind.
With the (relatively) new rules on intentional grounding, a quarterback should never run out of bounds behind the line on a pass play. Unfortunately, Sims was only one for two on getting rid of it before crossing the boundary behind the line, giving the RBBs their only sack. It was egregious, too, as it turned a 47-yard field goal attempt into a 51-yard field goal attempt - which may or may not have had something to do with the actual attempt turning out to be a shank.
Bama may have had 99 problems Saturday, but T.J. Yeldon sure wasn't one. T.J. easily enjoyed his best game of the year from a qualitative standpoint, and really I'm not sure I've seen that electrifying Yeldon since 2012. This was a good run defense, and it could not stop him. #4 was decidedly not slow out of the blocks as he seemed to be during most of 2013. He finished with a spiffy 123 yards on 20 carries, even though his longest gain, a 27-yarder, was called back for an apparently inconsequential block in the back by Jalston Fowler.
Otherwise, Fowler continued his 2014 showing as a standout blocking back. I'll predict the Tide doesn't use a blocking back as often in 2015, but when you've got a hoss like Fowler, you ride him.
It was bad timing for Henry to have his first off day when both Drake AND Tyren Jones were hurt and we didn't really have another way to turn, but then again I think the Ole Miss D had something to do with that. It could be that Henry's style of picking his way through traffic and turning on the jets when he sees a hole may not work that well against a solid assignment D. At any rate, I think T. Jones could've gotten a few totes yesterday if he had been healthy. Get well soon, Tyren, you're needed all of a sudden.
And we know why. Kenyan Drake made a very nice run on his one chance to pick up a first down off an underneath throw on 3rd-and-10. If the break was clean, he should be fully healthy by next September, and back in T-Town as well, because the NFL guys are going to want to see him on the field before they open their checkbooks.
I've been watching sports for half a century now, and probably two of the ugliest injuries I've ever seen have been to Bama players in the last decade. Can you believe how long it took Verne and Gary to realize something really bad had just happened?
Amari Cooper's 9 catches for 91 yards kept his Heisman candidacy alive, but Ole Miss gave him a lot of attention and took away most of his explosiveness. That still didn't signal the Tide to start looking for other wideouts, as Chris Black, Christion Jones and every other wideout on the roster combined for 3 catches for 36 yards.
The other big target was O.J. Howard, who got open for 3 catches for 81 yards, but also had some very visible mistakes: 2 drops, a holding call, and a missed block that led to Derrick Henry getting dropped for a 9-yard loss. But the online Bama fans I've seen calling for us to forget about #88 going forward are over-reacting in a huge way. Yesterday was a little disappointing, but Bama still needs to get this guy the ball.
Howard is the Tide's second most-explosive receiver. The first drop hurt badly, but it was a result of turning the head too quickly to try to make a big play; that's not excusable, but stuff like that happens with young guys who don't get enough chances. The second drop can't be judged based on TV; it may have been caused by the defense. The holding call was probably a good call, but also ticky-tack and not really a terrible mistake by Howard. That's the way you block in pass-protection, you just have to let go of the shirt quickly when he goes sideways.
But the fans I've seen ripping O.J. for not preventing the interception? Out to lunch. Try something for me: go out into an open field, run full speed, turn and look back behind you over your left shoulder while running, and then leap up and toward where your back is now pointing (a full 270 degrees of body rotation from where your eyes are pointing). If you get more than 6" off the ground, then please, come back and complain about that play. You're expecting Howard to have gotten his toes a good 18" off the ground to have a shot at getting to that ball first. If there's anybody in the world who can do that, he (or she) ain't 6'6", 240.
Brian Vogler made a nice twisting layout to get an early first down on a 3rd-and-4 catch. Vogler also had a pair of effective blocks on Bama's sole touchdown drive, the one that we can call "the sweep-left drive."
Pass protection continues to be outstanding, with the only sack coming off Sims' mistake scrambling out of bounds, as described above. Between solid pass blocking and Sims' mobility, this team is really hard to pass-rush.
The running game was relatively solid with the exception of a couple of big Derrick Henry losses, netting 168, almost all in the first 3 quarters, against a team that was giving up 89.5 per coming in. Alabama's touchdown drive was mostly around the left end, but much of the early running came straight up the middle, mostly between Kelly and Leon Brown. In fact, during this entire game we saw much less of the in-between off-tackle running Bama used so much the first four games, with more running up the middle and also more sweeps.
Brown may be the guy who has made the most mistakes - scratch that, he is the guy who has made the most mistakes - but it's also apparent why he's still playing. As a run-blocker, he drives his man as well as anybody we've got who isn't named Cam Robinson. To all appearance, the job is his, period.
Robinson is everything they said he was, a flat-out stud who I can easily see as the best OL in the game 5 or 6 years down the road. He had a couple of particularly nice blocks on the sweep left drive, one pushing his man outside on an off-tackle run between him and Arie Kouandjio, and another pinning his man in on a sweep between him and Vogler. But there was a lot of good blocking on that drive. As noted above, Vogler got a couple; Kelly repeatedly pulled on the sweeps and twice got important blocks on linebackers; on one play in the drive, Kouandjio screened two different guys away from Yeldon in the backfield.
Twice the Tide appeared to have either broken assignments or poorly-designed plays. On the 3rd-and-1 2nd-quarter run where Yeldon was caught in the backfield, Shepherd released to look for a linebacker downfield leaving 2 guys to block 3 RBBs. On another play, Kelly released to pull left while Brown released to the second level to find a linebacker. Meanwhile, the RBB lineman in front of Kelly stormed straight into the backfield to nail Henry for a 6-yard loss.
Hopefully, Kelly will be back soon, but if he's not then Bozeman needs to benefit from the increased reps. Bama had to call timeout to prevent delay-of-game penalties twice after he came in, and one of the TOs was clearly on him, plus he snapped it low in the shotgun repeatedly. Another timeout or two would've been really nice for that late-game drive; you don't want to blame the game on this, but just possibly, the luxury of a sideline coach-to-quarterback chat in the last minute of the game could've kept that throw into double coverage in the end zone from being made.
Two guys made almost all the big plays, Xzavier Dickson and Jonathan Allen.
Dickson had both of Bama's sacks, 6 tackles and 3.5 TFLs, including staying home both on an early reverse and on a second-half bootleg to nail the runner behind the line both times.
Allen was, if anything, even more outstanding. Twice he played off blocks to twist and down a runner at the line and was a constant force inside. One of Dickson's sacks came only after Allen forced Wallace out of the pocket. He totaled 5 tackles and 1.5 TFLs.
A'Shawn Robinson had 3 assists. Jarran Reed had 2 assists and a block. D.J. Pettway had a nice wrap-up of Wallace after a faked handoff for a three-yard loss, and got unlucky on an attempted pass block when the ball went between his waving arms for a first-down completion.
Just as in the Florida game, Ole Miss' most successful running play was the quarterback draw.
The light that came on for Reggie Ragland against Florida stayed on. Ragland had 9 tackles, and 1.5 TFLs. At least 3 of the tackles were solid one-on-one wrap-ups on running backs, and #19 is tackling guys a lot closer to the line of scrimmage than was the case early in the season. Just as in the Florida game, Reggie laid down a marker with a big early shot on a running back. He also sniffed out one of those quarterback draws and nailed Wallace in the backfield.
Pass coverage continues to be a problem for this group. Ragland was a step behind Elliot Engram on a 16-yard 4th-quarter completion, but at least he was in the neighborhood: Depriest barely stayed on-screen trying to cover Engram on the 50-yard 3rd quarter completion that led to Ole Miss' first touchdown.
Rueben Foster, Dillon Lee and Tim Williams assisted in populating the bench. Rasheed Evans played special team, but Depriest and Ragland were the only middle linebackers who participated on defense.
Ole Miss earned most of their 251 passing yards, as Perfect Bo made an appearance in the second half. And yes, Bama's customary soft pass rush probably has a little to do with why quarterbacks have had careers days against the Tide for most of Bama's losses over the last few years, but my best theory remains evil magic.
Whatever demonic force caused it, Wallace was amazing in the second half. Every throw was perfect, and a lot of them had to be, because the pass defense was pretty good overall.
It wasn't perfect, to be sure. In particular, Landon Collins repeatedly fell in a step behind the guy he was covering, usually Engram, and it could've been worse than it was if #17 hadn't dropped another perfectly-thrown long ball. Collins was never way behind his man, but he was consistently enough out of position to make it impossible to stop the perfect throws that were made against him. He was also very slow to rotate over when Depriest was stuck covering Engram on a streak play, leading to a 50-yard gain.
Tony Brown got toasted to a deep golden brown on the game-winning 34-yard TD pass to Vince Sanders, biting savagely at a fairly rudimentary out fake, but otherwise played fairly well, staying in the game mentally despite being victimized repeatedly by perfect back-shoulder passes. Those passes are just nearly impossible to defend, and I didn't see Brown failing to turn his head when head-turning time came. He made a great play to prevent a deep completion off a scramble in the 4th quarter, and although he missed a tackle inside the 5 on a TD pass, he is very physical for a freshman corner. He committed an unforgivable sin by roughing the kicker on an extra point - missed and potentially game-altering no less - but probably reduced the number of stadium steps he will be running by coming back and blocking the second try.
I'm sure #2 wants to forget this game, but I'm Bullish on Brown.
The best news from Saturday, at least defensive-backfield-wise, is that Cyrus Jones is showing why Nick Saban spent most of 2013 spring practice looking over his shoulder. Saban has picked on guys like Mark Barron and Dre Kirkpatrick in the past, so while it might not be fun to be the pickee, it's an honor.
Everything Jones gave up in this game was very well-earned by Ole Miss, and nothing got past him. He was draped on his man every time it was thrown at him, and while he got away with a facemask on what might've turned out to be the biggest play of the game, I saw more good than bad on that play. To start with, Jones was in position to stop the play; the reason the penalty didn't get called was that Cyrus let go of the face mask immediately once he realized he had hold of it (and the outcome of this play is a fantastic example of why that is such a good idea); he gave the ball a good poke; and then he tiptoed beautifully down the sideline for the score. Overall, it was a heckuva play; yeah, he got really lucky that the penalty wasn't called, but grabbing a face mask is usually kind of a luck thing to start with.
Jarrick Williams was seen on the field, but not in a good way; he was juked badly giving up a nice gain on an early short pass. He may have trouble getting his job back from Nick Perry, who had a solid game, making nine tackles without getting burned significantly. There was no Jabriel Washington sighting
Obviously the biggest problem was Christion Jones' two kickoff return fumbles in the 4th quarter, the 2nd of which most likely cost Alabama the game. If you will recall, Jones had very serious fumbling problems as a sophomore in 2012, so serious that it was a little surprising to see him keep the job, but he appeared to have gotten over it in 2013.
Now it's clear enough that he hasn't gotten over it, and if he never gets the job back I won't complain. To be sure, Cyrus Jones fumbled once in 2012 as well, but he's a little more muscular and the ball just appears to be better locked-up when Cy. Jones is running than when Chr. Jones is running. Chr. had a nice, twisting 39-yard return in the first quarter, but it was noticeable even then that he was holding it a little loosely (although he did keep it on that run after an Ole Miss cover guy raked it).
The RBBs had two long kickoff returns. The first came off a horrible kickoff, a low knuckler fielded at the 7; the kick got downfield so fast that Bama didn't really have a chance to set up its coverage. Still, Derrick Henry managed to overrun the play, thereby giving up the sideline. He has made a couple of big plays on kickoff coverage, but he is not covering that corner, and it's hard not to see him as a liability.
He gave up the corner again on the RBBs' next kickoff return, which led to little Adam Griffith making a touchdown-saving tackle all by his lonesome at the 42. I'm glad he did, but Griffith is no Cade Foster when it comes to tackling; the less he is left one-on-one with a returner, the better.
Along with the tackle, Griffith also had a nice 44-yard field goal, but it was otherwise a forgettable day. The horrible opening kickoff is described above, but his next kickoff was little better, bouncing at the 10 and leading to another long return. Griffith's first missed field goal was a "good" miss: strong, up fast and unblockable, just pushed a bit to the right. But his second miss was an ugly low hook from 51 that would've missed even from extra point range. It's not very pleasing to learn that he has kicks like that in his repertoire.
There was a good side, and it was very good: J.K. Scott has one helluva leg on him. If he had enough punts to qualify for the lead, he would be 2nd nationally at 48.5, only .1 per punt behind Hayden Hunt of Colorado St. Scott kicks ‘em high, too, and is averaging a lovely net of 42.3. Markell Pack's 9-yard 4th-quarter return Saturday brought the total punt return yardage for the season by Bama's opponents up to 8 (Bama has 110).