Bama fans are accustomed to pulling for big hits and denials. We can be more than a little bit snobby about our old-schoolishness and about like nothing more than proving that defense wins championships. Getting the taste of being that explosive team that rains offensive yardage and long touchdowns from all over the field is kind of a new thing for us, but sometimes change is tolerable. To put it lightly.
Florida is probably not as good a football team as the Rivals rankings of their roster might lead one to believe, and Will Muschamp will probably not be coaching this team in 2015, but it's hard to deny that they have at least most of the components of a good defense. But although the Gators' have an active and disruptive front seven, backed up by All-American cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, the 645 yards that the Tide racked up was the most any Florida opponent has ever compiled.
Florida's offense has struggled behind Jeff Driskel as long as he has been there, and 2014 may be more of the same, but they did eventually manage to rack up 532 yards against Kentucky, which is at least nominally an SEC team. The Tide held them to 200, and a sizable chunk of that came after Alabama established a 21-point 4th-quarter lead. Bama's problematic back 7 picked up their play across the board, and the defensive line continued to play in denial mode. All 21 of the Gators' points came directly from turnovers, and when Nick Saban showed his trust in the D by taking a penalty and giving Florida a second shot at a third-quarter first down, the Tide responded and stopped the Gators from getting back into the field goal range they would've been in but for the penalty.
It's not just offense. After four games, the Bama defense is starting to climb back at least toward the statistical realm it is accustomed to inhabiting. The pass efficiency defense soared from 51st nationally to 18th in one week's performance, and the Tide is 10th nationally in scoring defense (despite the turnover points from yesterday and the kickoff return TD by West Virgtinia), 5th in total defense, and 3rd in rushing defense (typically the stat that is best correlated with winning). The Tide is 2nd in the nation in 3rd down conversion percentage, and 3rd in 3rd-down conversion percentage defense, each of which stats showed up against Florida, which converted only 2 of 13 while watching Sims and Bama rack up 12 of 16.
On one particular third-quarter sequence, after a penalty gave Florida a first down at midfield and a chance to get back within one score, back-to-back-to-back defensive plays summoned memories of some of those recent Tide Ds, the ones that brought home the crystal. On first down, Jarran Reed dropped Driskel for a two-yard loss on a quarterback keeper, on second down Reggie Ragland got good pressure up the middle to force a poorly-thrown incompletion, and then Landon Collins made a nifty one-hand pick on Driskel's 3rd-down throw across the middle. That series wasn't bad Florida, it was vintage Saban Alabama.
You can't shrug off turning the ball over four times during the competitive part of a game, and twice in the game's first six minutes, but on close examination, the ball-security worries are probably not as worrisome as they might initially seem:
- Kenyan Drake fell victim to a strong strip almost immediately after he and Amari Cooper collided right on the ball. Most guys would've fumbled on that play.
- D'Andrew White took a helmet right on the ball on the UF fumble-recovery TD. You might ask your beefy power runner to hang onto the ball after taking a hat-to-ball shot, but you might find yourself disappointed, and it's probably not realistic to expect that from a slender wideout.
- Blake Sims' pick was hard to avoid, as he threw the ball to a spot that was seemingly clear of the oncoming pass rusher, who then threw his hand up at just the right time and in just the right place to not only deflect the ball, but deflect it high into the air for an easy pick. That play was mostly just bad luck.
- Sims' fumble was probably more the result of bad Bama play than any of the other turnovers, but it still took a confluence of events to make it happen: the fake handoff to Drake was a little more physical than it should've been, so when Leon Brown's man beat him and got straight into the backfield he managed to rake the ball before Sims had fully secured it after the fake. In other words, yes, the Tide screwed up on that play, but the screw-ups weren't necessarily of a 100% ball-security nature; they just worked out that way.
But still, as powerful as Bama seemed, we have to wonder if Florida is really any good at all. The Tide has a week off now, and if we don't know how good this year's Bama squad is yet, we will soon, because a tough stretch is coming. Four of the next six games are on the road, and four of the next six opponents are among the top 18 teams in both major polls.
I was pretty depressed about Bama's 2014 championship chances after watching Blake Sims throw those downfield pop-ups against West Virginia, but although I wasn't the only person who thought that was all he had, obviously it isn't. Sims has gone downfield quite a few times since then, and we haven't seen those kinds of rainbows again. Kind of makes you wonder where they all came from, because it wasn't just one pass.
Whatever. The game-opening pass to Kenyan Drake travelled about 50 yards in the air and was a thing of beauty, forcing Drake to turn on the speed to get to it, which is the reason he was able to beat the safety to the corner and house it. The 79-yard TD to Cooper was thrown over the wrong shoulder but was a very catchable ball, and Sims dropped another deep perfectly in to Cooper on the first pass of the second half (though it was called back for a penalty). He doesn't have Coker's arm strength, but he obviously has enough to get some defensive backs out of the box.
Accuracy remains his strength, and he was generally on target against Florida. On the season, his 190.8 passing efficiency rating and 73.3% completion percentage each rank as 4th among the nation's quarterbacks.
Combine that kind of passing with smart and nifty running, and the conclusion is that Sims can obviously move this team smartly. After all, the dude threw for 272 yards yesterday - in the first quarter.
But I'm still not 100% comfortable with his turnover avoidance, and a little nervous about what he might do if a defense ever manages to get under his skin. Leon Brown shares credit on the fumble for letting his man into the backfield virtually free, but Sims was a little slow to lock the ball up after the fake hand-off: he did not take the helmet on the ball that caused the White fumble or the hard strip that caused the Drake fumble, it was just a little poke. And while I stand by calling the pick mostly bad luck, truth be told he had another pass that was deflected into the air and possibly pick-able, and that one looked a bit more predictable and avoidable. He's listed at 6' flat, and you know it isn't often that they understate a quarterback's height.
At any rate, just because Florida's D caused those turnovers doesn't mean Sims gets a free pass: he has to avoid them, not just fail to make blunders that cause them. SEC quarterbacks are often politely invited by their foes, one way or another, to turn over the ball. Protecting the rock is a first-order priority in this league.
You can pick at other aspects of his performance, too. For one thing, Gary Danielson was right, he should've lain on the turf after the shoulder injury until Coker had time to warm the arm up a little. #6 struggled getting his team organized at the line frequently, with a snap infraction, two whole-line movement penalties and a delay of game. Some of those struggles, though, probably go on the offensive coordinator, whose team experienced similar problems while he was a head coach at USC.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining about the offensive coordinator. Lane Kiffin is getting some well-deserved praise in the press today; at times during the CBS broadcast yesterday it seemed as if Gary Danielson was thinking about asking him out on a date. I think they've all got a point. My favorite way to judge an OC is by whether receivers get open: by that metric, Lane Kiffin is doing a fantastic job in 2014, and appears to be a clear cut above anybody else who has served under Saban for the Tide.
I can live with plays getting in a second or two late if they work, you know what I mean? Let's just hope that his past failures at head coaching will allow us to hang onto him at least one more year after this one.
The fact that Sims was able to return after the shoulder injury is a very hopeful sign for his future. With a week off coming up, the smart money would have to say he will miss no further time. But if he does, I've seen enough Coker to feel good about Bama's chances should the youngster be forced to fill in.
The strained hamstring that made him miss most of the second half against Southern Miss may have slowed T.J. Yeldon down, but for whatever reason, #4 was unable to get anything going until after the running game finally broke through in the third quarter with Derrick Henry getting the carries. T.J.'s first 12 carries only netted 34 yards, without a gain longer than 7, while Drake got more than 7 on his first carry, and Henry got more than 7 on his second carry. Even while he was struggling, though, T.J. put together as spectacular a 5-yard gain as you would care to see, and late in the game turned a short pass into a 37-yard gain that was probably the best run of the day by an Alabama back.
But I find it a little puzzling sometimes when Bama runs injured guys out there when young, talented guys on the bench are running full-speed and can use the experience to boot; DeAndrew White was another example this week, as he didn't quite look full speed to me. Couldn't he have used the rest, and couldn't Chris Black and ArDarius Stewart have used the PT, not to mention played just as well (or better)?
/rant. Whatever the reason, only the fact that Bama's passing offense went so hog-wild in the first stanza covered up for the fact that the run game got only 30 first-half yards. On the other hand, if the passing game contains to function at such a high level, the running chances will come.
Henry eventually did get more carries than Yeldon, the great majority of them in the second half, and was generally successful. He is now Bama's leading rusher on the season with 322 yards and a 6.0 yards per carry average to go against Yeldon's 295 and 5.0.
Drake's history means he gets cut no slack when it comes to turnovers, so it wasn't at all surprising that he didn't touch the ball again for a long time after being separated from it once. As noted above, though, I don't really blame #17 much for that fumble, and suspect that once the films are closely reviewed, it's not going to cut out too many of his future touches.
Jalston Fowler looks fully healthy, which is gratifying considering how badly his knee was injured in 2012. He is cruising toward being a 2nd-day draft selection, as good as it gets for a fullback. Fowler had a nifty falling-backward touchdown reception, but failed to spot an unblocked defensive back who nailed Drake for a 6-yard loss on a 4th-quarter sweep.
September is too early to talk about the Heisman Trophy. Way too early, and if I was king, I would issue a decree forbidding it - but I ain't king, and folks are bound and determined to talk about it now. So I guess I'll go ahead and say one little thing: Amari Cooper has got to be a leader based on play in 2014. Not only is he leading the nation in receiving and receiving yardage, he just absolutely tore up the guy pegged as the nation's top cover corner on national TV.
Amari's 201 receiving yards yesterday was 1 yard more than Florida's entire offense got in the whole game, and the margin could've been wider. He had a beautiful 32-yard catch called back for an irrelevant illegal formation penalty, and while Gary Danielson purported to have spotted the Cooper push-off that nullified an 18-yard third-quarter TD pass, it wasn't so apparent from the one replay angle that was shown.
Cooper's speed, vision and cutting ability get him open time after time, but he has the courage to catch in traffic, too, as he weaved through Florida's defenders for 63 yards on two across-the-middle catches early in the game. He made a very nice in-route adjustment to haul in Sim's deep throw for a 79-yard score and defeated Hargreaves physically to snag a short TD throw from Coker.
DeAndrew White had six catches, but for only 48 yards, and also fumbled. The only other wideout to catch a pass was Christion Jones, who caught one pass for four yards. Unfortunately, that four-yard gain came on a 3rd-and-5 play and led to a punt.
O.J. Howard caught his first two passes of the season, including a 12-yard gain on a 3rd-and-6 pass.
I like it when Bama has Heisman candidates, because that's good for the brand, and Cooper's strengthening candidacy is obviously served by getting him the ball so much. And clearly, it's working. Still though, still . . . I worry about him staying healthy all year. I'd spread it out more, but if we're not going to, then stay healthy, Coop.
Blake Sims took his first sack of the season, but it was decidedly a coverage sack, coming some 6 or 7 seconds after the snap, and the interception was caused by pressure as well. Otherwise, there wasn't a lot of pressure and Sims was able to handle it with his legs. Generally, the line did a good job of keeping a quick and active group of defenders relatively clear of the quarterback.
The line as a whole was unable to spark any kind of first-half running game, but stepped up when it needed to after the Sims injury. With Coker called in cold with no chance to throw a single warm-up pass, and Bama guarding a mere 7-point lead, the Tide had to run - and did. Cam Robinson led the way with beautiful back-to-back downfield blocks on Florida's speedy linebacker Antonio Morrison, helping Derrick Henry rip off two first-down runs that totaled 38 yards, setting up Coker's short TD pass to Cooper.
Arie Kouandjio was also involved in those two runs, and a had a very nice block on the 3rd-quarter 3rd-and-23 screen pass to Henry that got a first down and set up the TD that gave the Tide the lead. On that play, #77 engaged his man at the line and drove him a good 10 yards downfield.
Although the Tide got the running game going running wide left behind Robinson, it then proceeded to have success running right behind Austin Shephard. Shepard blocked two guys completely out of the play, one after the other, on T.J. Yeldon's 11-yard run late in the third quarter, and sealed his man outside on each of back-to-back runs of 9 and 7 by Henry in the 4th quarter.
But the Tide had less success running up the middle. As noted above, Leon Brown fanned on a defensive lineman in the second quarter, leading to a Sims fumble.
It was by and large a Saban-ish pass rush for Alabama: there were no explosive bursts into the quarterback's face, but the Tide got a consistent push and Driskel never had all day. D.J. Pettway was the most consistently successful Tide pass-rusher, helping to cause one turnover by rushing Driskel on the Jabriel Washington pick, and very nearly causing another when he hit Driskel from behind before he threw a 3rd-down incompletion in the 3rd quarter.
Jarren Reed has played well all year, but had his most visible game against Florida. In addition to making the big first-down play on the third-quarter sequence I highlighted in the intro, he teamed with Denzell Devall for a stop at the line on Florida's first running play, made a solo run stop near the line on a Matt Jones 2nd-quarter run, and caused an incompletion with a 4th-quarter tipped pass.
In addition to teaming with Reed for the stop on UF's first running play, Devall got penetration and forced a two-yard loss on a Driskel bootleg, and also rushed an incompletion.
Florida game-planned A'Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen, supposedly Bama's DL stars, almost entirely out of the game, but Reed, Pettway, Devall and Ryan Anderson more than made up for it. It's a little disappointing, though, that Robinson has been in on only six tackles, with one hurry and no sacks, through four games.
As much as I enjoyed watching Alabama's passing game Saturday, I think my biggest confidence boost came from watching the light appear to come on for Reggie Ragland. Ragland led the team with 8 tackles, and made several fine plays. He recovered a fumble in the first quarter when things were looking a little dark, had decent coverage on a second-quarter short pass, pressure forcing a 4th-quarter incomplete, and two physical tackles on Matt Jones, including a first-quarter hit that was probably the Tide's biggest hit of the day.
Florida got its initial first down of the game on a 16-yard pass play to a tight end purportedly covered by Trey Depriest, but after that depressingly familiar start, #33 played a strong game, including a pass-defense play where he tipped a ball thrown downfield across the middle, causing an incompletion. He made back-to-back physical tackles on Matt Jones in the third quarter that led to getting the ball back for the Tide, which went on to extend its 28-21 lead, and a tackle on a 3rd-down Driskel scramble forced another punt.
The rest of the linebacking corps was not very visible, although Reuben Foster looked perhaps more dialed in during his 4th-quarter stint than he has previously. Dillon Lee remains mostly invisible in 2014; apparently his off-season was even tougher than it looked. Rashaan Evans is getting more time than either Lee or Tim Williams, neither of whom show up on this week's stats sheet.
There were some different guys back there this week, and it worked.
Last week Landon Collins was starting to look like the All-American he was predicted to be. This week it was full-on. His leaping deflection while giving Maurice Smith help near the sideline in the second quarter brought Ha Ha Clinton-Dix's athletic interception against Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl to my mind. He made a gorgeous one-handed pick later, and showed that he is dangerous with the ball in his hands after he made it, too. Collins' run-blitzing tackle of Matt Jones behind the line on a 3rd-and-2 play with Bama leading 28-21 and about 4 minutes left in the 3rd quarter may have been the biggest defensive play of the game, and he stopped another 3rd-down conversion with a solid tackle in the middle of the field.
He wasn't the only got that looked good out there, either. Smith had excellent coverage on two incomplete deep outs, and when he failed to look back for the ball he was bailed out when the sun got into Andre Dubose's eyes and the ball bounced off his facemask. Perhaps Smith's best play came when he threw a blocker to the side on a bubble screen, allowing Depriest to wrap up the receiver for a loss.
Tony Brown was solid in his first extended game action, too. He got lucky on the first throw of Florida's second possession, when he let Demarcus Robinson get a full step on him, but Driskel overthrew his man on what could've been a touchdown. Otherwise he was solid, giving up only 3 yards total when thrown at 3 times on Florida's first two possession, and otherwise giving up only one 12-yard completion in the 4th quarter when Bama already had a 21-point lead, despite being asked to cover Florida's leading receiver for most of the game.
Jabriel Washington was burned badly for Florida's first touchdown, so badly that you wonder whether he expected deep help (although safeties usually don't). But #23 had good pass D on another couple of plays, and looks like a ballhawk. He had a nice pick and didn't miss another by much; last week he dropped a pick.
Cyrus Jones got turned around and let his man get open 12 yards downfield on a 3rd-and-8 play, but was bailed out when the pass was dropped. Later, though, he made a very nice play to spin off a solid block and make a nice one-on-one tackle on big Matt Jones a yard short of the first down.
Geno Smith was correctly tagged for pass interference when he had good coverage but didn't turn his head to pick up the ball. Bama had just gained a 14-point lead for the first time in the game, and Smith's error could've let the Gators back in the game if his mates hadn't picked him up with the solid sequence I described in the intro.
Nick Perry missed the first half due to a targeting suspension. He also missed the second half, apparently due to the play of Maurice Smith, Geno Smith and Jabriel Washington.
Other than the turnovers, the only disappointment for Bama fans this week came when the Tide kickers tailed off noticeably from what had been a fantastic first three games.
Adam Griffith's first missed field goal of the game was not nearly good, but as bad misses go, it was a good bad miss. In other words, the kick got up quickly and was straight and very long: it was just aimed a good 10 yards to the left of the left upright. But after a 9-yard deep boomer on the opening kickoff, Griffith didn't have another touchback in six more kickoffs.
J.K. Scott had his first bad punt of the season, too, with an ugly side-of-the-footer on his first try that only went 30 yards. But he came back with a 57-yard second punt and again gave up no punt return yardage. The Tide's opponents have racked up -1 yards of total returns on the season.
Derrick Henry made a solid tackle at the 14-yard-line on a kickoff return, but he worries me a bit by consistently failing to cut off his sideline. Cyrus Jones was correctly called for a facemask penalty on another return.