Boy, that was easy. So easy that there's not a lot of information to gather from the game. Folks, this week we played a truly abysmal team.
Wait. Wait. Let's start over; I'm lazy, but I'll get busted when I use the exact same paragraph to start my article two weeks in a row, no matter how true it still is (and it is still quite true). In fact, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Southern Miss is better than FAU, or at least they played better against us.
Nick Mullens looked particularly good behind center for the Golden Eagles. Under quite a bit of pressure for most of the game, and without many guys open downfield, he nevertheless stood tall and rang up more than 200 yards in the passing game. Unfortunately for him, the poor guy didn't have much help. On one fourth-down play, he managed to corral an errant snap by leaping to his left only to have his own fullback bump into him, practically knocking him into a biltzing Trey DePriest... yet an off-balance Mullens still managed to dump it incomplete just pre-devastation.
As a Bama fan, I wouldn't get too upset about the 207 yards passing or the 12 points. Two of the field goals came off individual mistakes - Tyren Jones' punt-return blocking misadventure and Nick Perry's targeting foul - and the other two came off good offensive execution by Southern Miss. The D has some soft spots, but playmakers as well, even though you might not believe it from the number of opponent turnovers so far this year (1).
Overall, it was an easy win, and more good experience for our important players that needed it. Which of them played well? And how ready are we for the next seven games against Florida, Ole Miss, Arkansas, Texas A&M, Tennessee, LSU and Mississippi State, respectively? Cause the fun and experiments are over; it's nut-cuttin' time.
It was another strong performance by Blake Sims, albeit against weak competition. Sims threw accurately again, and his deep balls didn't have quite the same rainbow action we saw against West Virginia. Sims underthrew Cooper on his first deep attempt because he held onto the ball until #9 had run out of his range, but later, when he found him down the left sideline on a ball that traveled about 37 yards in the air, the throw had some air underneath it but was in a good spot for Cooper to run to because Sims got rid of it quickly. As the two plays showed, when you don't have the strongest arm you must get rid of the ball quickly to hit a fast receiver running a fly pattern.
Sims also had a good day running the ball, including a 20 yard run on 3rd and 10, and completed multiple 3rd-down conversion passes. He even had a big block on Cooper's cutback run off a bubble screen.
It wasn't all good for #6. He probably should have taken a time out instead of the snap when the team looked confused and desperate on a first-and-goal play in the 2nd quarter; the fact that Sims turned the play into an athletic 4-yard touchdown run did not save him from the unhappy attentions of Nick Saban and Lane Kiffin afterward. Worse, after Bama got the ball back at the USM 38 after a poor second-quarter punt, Sims almost created a disaster when his throw on a called swing pass was actually a lateral and thrown well behind Cooper, and with some juice. Although Cooper saved the day with an athletic twisting maneuver that not only secured the ball but barely even slowed him down, that toss had disaster written all over it. If it gets past Cooper, as it probably would have done with a less gifted player, there's nobody over there but USM DBs and nothing but green between them and the end zone.
Coker had another good showing against weak competition as well, leading a 99-yard touchdown drive on his first appearance, and going 5 for 7 despite a big drop. #14 looked more comfortable against competition than he did last week, but he overthrew Raheem Falkins when Falkins was open for six on a deep post, and has been sacked twice now while Sims has not been sacked despite throwing over twice as many passes.
Alec Morris saw action and handed off well enough to get another Bama TD. It would be nice to see Morris stick around and become a veteran backup. Those guys can be quite valuable, perhaps even becoming veteran starters when things work out that way (as Sims demonstrates). Bama can use a stick-around guy or two after seeing Phil Sims, Phillip Ely and Luke Del Rio decide that sticking around ain't their game.
Three games in, I'm more comfortable about the Tide's quarterbacking prospects than I would've expected, considering that the unthinkable has eventuated and Sims is the man. Blake has completed 75% of his passes on the season and only has one turnover, and while you have to take the low caliber of the opposition into account, that still sounds like a guy who has warmed to the task. I'm particularly happy with his running, as he has not only been successful on the ground but smart about it, running when he needs to instead of running all the time because he wants to.
With short, accurate passing and timely running, Sims can move this talented team well enough to make it a championship contender if the defense continues to come around, but turnovers remain my quarterbacking concern. It is encouraging that Sims has only one turnover after throwing 64 passes, but plays that could have been turnovers, like the second-quarter swing pass to Cooper or the inaccurate throws against West Virginia, make it impossible for me to flush that 2013 A-Day performance down the pipeholes of memory.
Bama is apparently in a better position at backup quarterback than it has been the last two years, but still, here's to Sims' health. He is the man, fears or not.
We'll just have to see what happens when Bama sees real defenses. We'll certainly see far more talent lining up on that side of the ball this week than we've seen yet this season. This should be interesting.
It was another solid, but unspectacular game for Bama's running backs, although Derrick Henry came one shoestring tackle away from erasing the un part from that word with a 99-yard TD jaunt. Six different runners got 39 yards or more, and the team averaged 6.8 yards per carry to pile up 333 yards on the ground.
It's a hopeful sign that Kenyan Drake has 21 touches without a fumble this year. Although obviously that is only a start, Drake can get a lot more touches if he conquers the fumbling bug. Not only do I have him as our most explosive back, but statistically he has been our most reliable runner in short yardage. Kiffin and Saban may have a similar idea, as they gave him most of the goal line carries this week, leading to this three TDs.
It was another impressive week for Tyren Jones, who has shown he deserves a few more carries, although it's hard to imagine where they'll come from. Maybe one a week each from Yeldon and Henry? And I think it's safe to say that Altee Tenpenny is in the upper crust of 5th-string running backs.
This position is obviously a team strength. T.J. Yeldon appears to have regained at least some of the burst he lost between his freshman and sophomore seasons, and is a proven workhorse. Derrick Henry's speed and ability to run through arm tackles without slowing down makes him a solid home-run threat, and Drake, Jones and Tenpenny make this the deepest unit in the land. Block for them and they will bring home the yardage.
I've already bragged about the great job Amari Cooper did to fend off disaster on a poorly-thrown second-quarter pass by Blake Sims, but otherwise it was pretty much another day in the office for #9, with 8 receptions for 135 yards. Cooper is rapidly cementing himself in position as the nation's top receiver. He made a spectacular cutback across-the-entire-field run to turn a nothing swing pass into a first-down gain - although I wouldn't necessarily encourage him to keep trying that, as it took nice backfield blocks from O.J. Howard and Blake Sims to keep Cooper from being caught for a loss, plus the Howard block was uncomfortably close to being a clip in the backfield (it wasn't one, just close).
Christion Jones also caught 4 passes for 50 yards, including some very nice running on one pass into the right flat. Bama's other wides combined for the grand total of two catches for six yards, and twice Sims threw to a slightly-open Cooper instead of a completely unguarded Chris Black right in front of him. On both plays, it looked like the explosive Black had serious running room, while Cooper did not; I'd sure like him to have had a chance to see what Black could have done.
Brian Vogler slipped into the end zone for a wide-open TD pass from Blake Sims. Three games into the season, Vogler and co-starter O.J. Howard have combined for 1 reception for 5 yards.
Is it Sims who decides to concentrate on Cooper so much, or is that Kiffin's game plan?
Obviously there isn't too much to complain about here, with 333 yards on the ground and only one sack given up trying to protect the backup quarterback. Again, the running game was quite consistent, averaging 6.8 yards per carry without a carry longer than 29 yards.
The Tide mostly ran behind the tackles. Austin Shepherd reliably gets on the correct side of whoever he is blocking, making it easy to open a hole. Cam Robinson is the most physical blocker on the line, and also shot downfield on one Drake sweep to get good contact on a defensive back 6-8 yards downfield. Backup right tackle Dominick Jackson was seen pushing his guy around on multiple plays, too.
On the down side, after making a nice block on an early T.J. Yeldon run, Leon Brown takes the blame for missing blocks that caused two of Alabama's three running plays that lost yardage, and on another play released into the second level to pick up a linebacker and missed, allowing his man to corral Drake after a two-yard gain.
On the season, it's notable that Yeldon, Henry and Drake all have yards per carry averages lower than they finished 2013 with. That could be a cause for worry, especially when you consider the weakness of the run defenses Bama has faced so far.
But I'm not sure we're really looking at a problem. Alabama is adjusting to a new offensive coordinator, and its offensive game plans (especially against FAU) have clearly been tinkered with because of the quarterback competition. Further, one clear reason the averages are off is because the Tide hasn't broken a run longer than 29 yards so far this year, which is not really much the fault of the line. All you can ask an offensive lineman to do is give his back a good shot at a 6- to 8-yard gain; the backs need to hit the home runs themselves. Since the Tide's backs are proven at doing that, I expect the homers to come.
The offensive line did a great job of avoiding sacks and even giving AJ McCarron the luxury of time in 2013, at least until the disastrous Sugar Bowl. As noted above, Blake Sims has not been sacked this year in his 64 throws, a sign that this year's squad could be just as good at pass protection as the Tide was last year.
Look at the stats for Southern's 3 leading ball carriers:
Tez Parks: long run 27 yards - total yardage on the game 25
Ito Smith: long run 16 yards - total yardage on the game 15
Nick Mullens: long run 20 yards - total yardage on the game 12
Yep, that's right, all three of the Eagles' leading carriers had negative yardage once you take away their longest run. In fact, once you take those three runs for 63 yards away? Southern totaled -7 yards on the ground.
Although Bama was only officially credited with one sack, pressure was frequent and strong and deserves a lot of credit for slowing down a hot Southern quarterback. Nick Mullens has to be sore today.
Jonathan Allen set the tone with a tackle for loss on Southern's first running play. He forced Mullens to scramble on a later play, and later flushed him out of the pocket and forced an incomplete on a 3rd-and-7 play despite being the object of a double-team.
Xzavier Dickson remains Bama's most consistent pass-rushing threat and was credited with three hurries. One hurry probably should've been a sack and a caused fumble, but when Mullens pushed the ball forward seemingly after the hit the refs called it an incomplete pass and blew it dead without allowing a recovery. Dickson also had a tackle for loss on a running play and made another run stop at the line, and has gotten a little more playing time every game.
Ryan Anderson also had a sack and two hurries. Denzell Duvall wasn't very visible most of the day, but he had a big hurry on Southern's first possession, causing a pass to fall incomplete when an Eagle receiver was running open downfield for a possible touchdown.
On the season, the Tide's defense has probably not been at Saban level overall, but you can't pin it on the defensive line. Despite having given up a handful of 20+-yard gains on the season - and long gains are as much on the rest of the D as on the line - the Tide front has given up very little else on the ground and is leading the nation in rushing defense.
The pass rush is not one of the most ferocious in the land, but at 50th nationally, that's actually a pretty good improvement over last year's totals, and really most years under Saban, as sacks from the defense, and particularly from the defensive line, is not been a point of emphasis in a Saban defense. I have the impression Saban is trying to change that a little bit, and while the start has not been overwhelming, we've seen some real pass-rushing talent from guys like Dickson and Anderson.
Expectations were high for this defensive line, but Bama is still relying on a lot of youth. I wouldn't say that the line has yet asserted itself as Nick Saban's best defensive line, as some were hoping, but don't rule it out: play has been good already, and young defensive lines often mature during the season.
Trey Depriest was second on the team with six tackles, and had a couple of nice run stops at or near the line, but it was a long day in pass defense. Three times he fell in a step behind a running back releasing through the middle of the field, and three times Mullens hit the back in stride, leading to 57 yards of passing. It is not clear what Bama can do about its linebacker pass defense, as Depriest is an integral part of the unit, and it is not in any case clear that any other ‘backer is any better.
Give Depriest credit for one big play in pass coverage. When he rocked a Southern receiver at the line on a 1st-and-10 from the Tide 19 on USM's first possession, the play appeared to give the Tide D the confidence it needed to hold the Golden Eagles to 3.
Reggie Ragland got pressure once, leading to a second-quarter incompletion, but was otherwise invisible, not even appearing on the stat sheet and whiffing in the flat on what turned into a 16-yard run from Ito Smith (who, as noted above, finished with 15 yards rushing on the game). Rashaan Evans had a tackle on a running play to go along with a kickoff coverage tackle, but as a general matter Depriest was the only linebacker really visible on defense.
The Tide's linebacking corps is off to a disappointing start. There's a lot of young linebacking talent on this team - Ragland, Reuben Foster, Dillon Lee, Tim Williams, and Rashaan Evans - but it doesn't appear to be budding at any great pace. You had to figure that at least one of those guys was going to really step up, but it hasn't happened yet.
Only veteran Trey Depriest is getting the job done, but as noted above, even Depriest comes at a cost to pass defense. The performance by the Tide's linebackers has been problematic and is worrisome, but there's still enough young talent on hand to create hope that the unit will round into shape. If Bama is going to be a championship contender without a full-featured quarterback, this crew is going to have to play better as the season continues.
As noted above, I'm not that down on the Tide defensive backfield in this game as the 207 yards passing and 12 points might suggest, as Southern's quarterback did a good job all day of passing accurately under pressure. The early 16-yard completion on Cyrus Jones and the 36-yarder later on Eddie Jackson were both examples of plays where the Bama coverage was at least pretty good but the pass was thrown perfectly to the spot where only the receiver could get to it.
Similarly, Landon Collins should probably have turned his head ¼ second earlier and maybe made a play on the 23-yard completion against him on Southern's opening drive, but it was a perfectly-thrown back-shoulder pass and very difficult to defend against. Collins later got picked off his man on a 3rd-and-2 crossing route that would've been an easy first down had the receiver not dropped the pass.
Otherwise, though, Collins played his best game of the season, perhaps the first time this year he has showed hints of reaching the All-American form many publications predicted for him this year. His 12 tackles led the team easily, and he repeatedly tackled receivers near the line both on crossing patterns and quick outs, and also helped Depriest make a run stop at the line.
In addition to the 36-yarder, Jackson let his man get by him in the second quarter, benefiting from an inaccurate pass and an incompletion, but he made a nice one-on-one tackle for a 2-yard gain on USM's first drive. I didn't see Jackson in the second half; perhaps he hit his play limit.
Cyrus Jones gave up a 26-yard gain on a 3rd-and-10 in the third quarter, but he was in a tough situation, as the Tide ran a safety blitz from the other side of the field just as Southern Miss was flooding the zone across from the safety blitz, leaving Jones covering two receivers. As he hesitated, one receiver ran right by him for the big gain. Jones also gave up a 12-yard completion underneath in the 4th quarter, when the Tide backs were playing well of the line.
As noted above, Nick Perry's man was running open downfield on Southern's first drive, but he was saved by good pressure from Denzell Duvall. Later, Perry was called on a textbook targeting foul - the SEC Network crew got a good replay angle showing Nick Saban rolling his eyes immediately after the hit. Even here, though, when it was violated, the targeting rule showed its worth, as Perry didn't follow through on a hit that might have really hurt the receiver, who was actually honest-to-God defenseless. Two years ago that hit probably gets finished, not just started.
Jabriel Washington got in position for a pick but let the ball go right through him. Geno Smith had a good tackle on a 3rd-and-10 inside screen. Maurice Smith gave up a 6-yard completion underneath on a 2nd-and-7, but had a pair of solid hits, including a one-on-one tackle at the line on a running play. Tony Brown was thrown at twice, once with good coverage on an incompletion, and the other time with good luck as Mullens missed his man who was open for the first on a third-and-six crossing pattern.
I'm not gonna lie and say we've got the best defensive backfield in the nation. We don't. Bama is 51st nationally in pass defense efficiency, a stat the Tide has mostly ruled during the Nick Saban era.
But I'm not wholly pessimistic about it, either. For one thing, while Bama has played a weak schedule so far, the quarterbacking has not been weak. Both Mullens and Clint Trickett were hard to stop; a hefty percentage of the passing yards the Tide has given up has come on plays where the D was actually pretty good but the offensive execution was flawless.
For another, there's a lot of talent on this team and the defensive backfield coaching is the best in the business. Landon Collins is becoming increasingly comfortable back there, Cyrus Jones is a lot better than most Tide fans give him credit for, Eddie Jackson seems increasingly as if he is at least close to full speed, Geno Smith and Nick Perry can provide solid depth if not better, and Tony Brown looks very much like he is going to be the real deal, with the only question being when. This defensive backfield will never be 2011 come again, but I expect it to be one of the top units in the SEC by the end of the year. I'm actually more worried about the middle linebackers.
Adam Griffith only got one touchback in 8 kickoffs, but every kickoff was inside the 10 and with decent hang time. Southern never returned one past the 30, and was stopped inside the 20 twice, with Rashaan Evans and Tim Williams doing the honors on those. Kenyan Drake made two kickoff return tackles, at the 22 and 25.
Griffith had one easy field goal, and converted it flawlessly. So far this season, he is 7 for 7 and every field goal has gotten up quickly and been long, strong and down the middle.
It's hard to imagine how Bama's punter could do better than that, but J.K. Scott has sure been trying. After showing in earlier games that he could boom it, this time we got to see if Scott could pull the string on a punt from the Southern 43. Answer: he can, as he pooched a high, beautiful 34-yarder that was fair caught inside the 10. Later he had a booming 54-yarder that was also fair caught at the 9, but was called back for a roughing penalty. On the season Scott has averaged 45.0 and the Tide's opponents have returned punts for a grand total of -1 yards through 3 games, while Bama has racked up 90 yards of punt return yardage.
So far in 2014, Alabama's special teams play has been so good that it would literally be top-notch in the NFL - other than that one little kickoff return TD by West Virginia. Every other aspect of the special teams game has been utterly excellent, but the Tide's kickoff return coverage has for a little too long been a little bit too interesting. While it hasn't been at all unusual for Bama gunners to slam a guy to the turf inside the 20, you're always holding your breath and looking for the big one, as giving up the big one has been a feature of the Tide's kickoff return defense for the last several years. Seeing so many big hits and deep stops from Bama and so many long returns by opponents just makes you wonder if our kickoff return defense isn't maybe just a bit too aggressive.