Anyone who has watched the Alabama football team under Nick Saban should be accustomed to what we saw Saturday: a methodical, somewhat ugly performance in a paycheck game. One way or another, every year Alabama manages to look terrible in one of these games for a good portion of the day yet somehow dominate the box score. This was the case on Saturday as the Tide won by 27 points while roughly doubling Middle Tennessee State's yardage total, yet leaving the fan base with more concern than confidence.
There were some good things in this one. First off, the defense played well for the most part. At some point fans are going to have to grasp that well-executed spread offenses are going to move the football a bit, and they did. On Friday we talked about the Run-Pass Option plays, and Blue Raiders QB Brent Stockstill executed them all day. These plays are designed to allow the QB to make decisions on the fly so that the defense "is always wrong," meaning that the ball is always going to go where defenders aren't. Combine this with Saban's penchant for staying in his base personnel packages in these types of games - Reggie Ragland should never be asked to cover anyone's small, quick slot receiver, as an example - and you have a recipe for some yards gained.
When you look back at the box score, however, the Tide allowed only 4.4 yards per pass and 2.8 yards per rush. Those are stellar numbers by any measure. The Tide played a vanilla defense, allowed them to catch the ball underneath, but held them out of the end zone until the fourth quarter. A'Shawn Robinson was predictably unblockable, stuffing several plays before they ever really started. Cyrus Jones continues to look the part of a top corner, making a beautiful interception in single coverage and giving up little to nothing on the day. The defense forced four total turnovers, the other three coming on fumble recoveries. Freshman CB Marlon Humphrey caused the first one with a beautiful strip after a short completion.
There were some positives on the offensive side as well. Kenyan Drake busted loose on a long "pass" that is really nothing more than a jet sweep, looking healthy and explosive again while appearing to have shaken off the tentativeness we saw early on last week. O.J. Howard caught four balls for 68 yards, showing up for the second consecutive game and seemingly ready to reach the vast potential we heard about upon his arrival. Derrick Henry and the run game got going in the second half after struggling against a stacked box early in the game. Damien Harris came in late and looked the part of a five-star freshman, showing great vision while busting a long run late in the game. Calvin Ridley had one bad drop but also showed off his athleticism again. Something tells me he is going to be a bigger part of the game plan next weekend.
Now, to the concerns. Most fans are going to point to the QBs here, but the main concern for me was the right side of the offensive line. After what appeared to be a solid performance in the Wisconsin game, RT Dominick Jackson was utterly embarrassed in this one. Dominick had better hope that DE Steven Rhodes is a future NFL star in the making, because he certainly looked like one on Saturday as he routinely beat Jackson off the edge and inside, stuffing Henry in the backfield on a couple of occasions and getting constant pressure on Jake Coker. Jackson's performance was poor enough that you have to wonder if coaches will evaluate what else they have on the roster. Lester Cotton came in late at left tackle and acquitted himself well. He is listed as the backup left tackle with Brandon Greene backing up Jackson, but many have speculated that top recruit Cotton may be the front-runner to take over at right tackle next season before flipping to left tackle as a junior when Cam Robinson departs. If that is the plan, perhaps the time-table gets moved up a bit unless Jackson can improve on what we saw Saturday. The old Alphonse Taylor showed up a time or two as well. That side of the line was just dysfunctional for most of the day. Fortunately Robinson and LG Ross Pierschbacher continue to look excellent on the other side, though Robinson was flagged for another hold.
The passing game looked worse than it actually was in this one. I think we learned a few things about the QB. First off, the Tide has essentially chosen its starter:
"I think we're closer," Saban said. "I think we started Jake two games in a row. I think there's a reason for that. I think we want to give Cooper Bateman an opportunity. I also think, in giving him an opportunity, he needs to have experience in case he needs to play somewhere down the road. However it works out, whatever is best for our team, that's what we'll do."
Pretty easy to read between the lines there. Reality is that Jake is the best of the bunch right now, and he has flaws. The main issue with him is decision making under duress, which showed up most glaringly when he did his best to throw a red zone interception into double coverage as a defender was drilling him off, you guessed it, the right side. Fortunately the ball fell incomplete and the Tide was able to punch it in the end zone. Jake's numbers were solid overall, completing 15/26 for 214 yards, 8.2 YPA and a respectable 131 passer rating. Granted, those numbers were buoyed by the glorified sweep to Drake, but every QB is going to have some YAC help off of screens and short passes. Jake has always had the arm and has definitely improved his accuracy, though he will still allow one to get away on occasion. He threw one interception on a deep ball that should have never been thrown as the safety was waiting over the top to make the easy pick.
What I took from the passing game in general is that Kiffin was trying to see if Jake can do some of the things that Kiffin would like to do. It's apparent that Lane wants to play faster, to run an offense that perhaps resembles the one we saw on the other sideline Saturday, making the QB competition as much about competing schemes as players. The team has unquestionably moved the ball better under Coker than Bateman, but with Coker the team is built for a more traditional style with a classic pro-style guy at QB, a big downhill runner in the backfield, and a collection of bigger receivers. Indeed, the 2015 team may well be at its best when running an offense akin to the one we saw back in 2009 as former OC Jim McElwain bludgeoned defenses with the running game while looking for explosive plays off play action. It will be interesting to see what Kiffin comes up with going forward. One thing is for certain - some play action on first down will do wonders for Coker as it's virtually impossible to pressure the passer in those situations. I also expect to see Henry more involved in the screen game at some point, an area in which he has excelled in the past.
Lastly, special teams. Richard Mullaney had a great punt return and Ronnie Harrison blocked a punt in the MTSU end zone. JK Scott still isn't kicking the air out of the ball as he did last season, but he did hit them better than he did against Wisconsin. The kick coverage was excellent again.
That about covers it, right?
Ugh. I don't know what is wrong with Adam Griffith at this point, but something has to give. The near misses that went just left or just right weren't all that concerning for me as something of a stats guy, because you expect those things to straighten out at some point. The last one, however, was just baffling. I don't remember a kicker with the type of leg he has leaving a 49-yarder short by six yards. Funny enough, I felt relieved as the ball left his foot because he finally had one right on-line. No way for us to know if the problem is physical or psychological, but you simply cannot continue to run a guy out there who just can't do the job. JK Scott was a kicker as well as a punter in high school and Gunnar Raborn is on the roster as well. I will personally be shocked if we don't see one of them next weekend.
The main goal in these paycheck games is to escape healthy and get some reps for the backups. As far as I know, the Tide came away from this one unscathed on the injury front and plenty of guys got to play. They now move on to face an Ole Miss team that has looked downright scary thus far, weaker competition notwithstanding. The Rebels boast a copious amount of NFL talent on defense and appear to have found a significant upgrade over Bo Wallace in new QB Chad Kelly. That team will test the Tide offensive line and secondary more than perhaps any other team on the schedule this season, so we will have a great opportunity to find out if this team is really built to contend. In any case, some adjustments are needed. Time to see what we've got.