Another cupcake, another methodical dismantling. Where have we seen this movie before?
The Tide took care of business on Saturday, defeating the overmatched Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks 34-0. The game offered a much-needed opportunity to regroup after last week's loss to an Ole Miss squad that looked rather uninspired in its own game last night, leaving Alabama fans to ponder missed opportunities. As is typical for these games, we really weren't given much to go on, but we'll take a stab at deciphering what we did see.
The defense flexed its muscles in this one, dominating the Warhawks in a manner we haven't seen since the national championship game win over LSU. The ULM offense managed a paltry 92 yards in 64 plays, a ridiculous 1.4 yards per play. The Tide was particularly stingy against the run, allowing all of nine yards in 31 carries while holding the Warhawks' passing attack below two yards per attempt. The defensive line was impenetrable in the run game and rushed the passer effectively. That group has proven to be quite adept at getting the hands up and knocking down passes. The secondary did an excellent job tackling in space after the short completions that teams are going to have to attempt against them due to the constant pressure applied by the front.
Offensively, the Tide did just enough. The running game was efficient if unspectacular, as Kenyan Drake and Derrick Henry combined for 117 yards on 23 attempts and Damien Harris cleaned up with an impressive four carries for 23 yards. After the game Saban acknowledged an overly conservative game plan that played it "close to the vest" more than they will be able to do against a better opponent. He was particularly defensive about Jake Coker, who looked shaky in the first half and finished the game at 17/31 for 158 yards and three TDs with one INT, stating that he was pleased with his quarterback's performance in both halves while citing drops as the bigger issue. In general, I agree with this assessment. Jake is not going to be a superstar and will continue to be a work in progress, that much is obvious. Those calling for others to play, however, need to understand that there has been a competition going on for some time and that the coaching staff clearly believes that Jake is the best we have. If the Tide is to reach its goals this season, the offense must find a way to avoid the critical mistakes that we saw against Ole Miss and play to its elite defense.
Competition notwithstanding, the offense did a better job avoiding mistakes in this one, turning the ball over only once as Coker attempted another deep ball despite getting hit as he threw, causing the ball to fall several yards short of its target. On that play the right side of the offensive line had a severe breakdown in communication as RT Dominick Jackson eschewed an inside rusher in favor of helping on an outside rusher. Offensive linemen are universally taught to look "inside first," so this had to be a case of a simple stunt working to confuse him. That side of the line continues to be suspect against speed rushers, an area that could cause major problems down the road. To Coker's credit, he ate the ball in the second half a couple of times rather than making ill-advised throws under pressure. Indeed, the passing game looked better in the second half as a whole as Jake completed 7/10 for two TDs and zero INTs, with a third TD pass dropped by freshman WR Calvin Ridley on what was a fairly routine attempt. There were no fewer than five blatant drops in this one, distributed evenly among the receivers. Drops are among the primary "drive-killers," particularly those critical third-down drops that we saw a couple of times. This is an area that must improve.
Hopefully the line will continue to improve and minimize the free runners, but offensively we need to get back to the philosophy that any drive is good that ends in a kick. Avoid turnovers, keep the defense in positive field position, keep pounding people on offense, and use the passing game sparingly to keep the opposing defense honest and move the chains. That is what Saban loves to do, and it is the formula for success for this Alabama team. Realistically, this team is going to go how the defense goes.
Perhaps the most encouraging news of the day was Adam Griffith looking as confident as ever in drilling two field goal attempts. There would be no better story if Adam was to turn it around and have the season he is capable of having, and I have a feeling that the fan base would love to get behind him. It was great to hear the encouragement from the crowd after his first one, and on the second one you could hear the thump of the ball as he crushed it high and right down the middle. Roll Adam Roll- we need you. Unfortunately, now JK Scott seems to have issues. If there was one player on this team who I considered to be a sure thing coming into the season, it was JK. The only thing I can figure is that he has to be injured somehow, though Saban has said nothing and interestingly no one in the media has asked about it. Scott had another rough day in this one, averaging under 40 yards on six punts, though he was pretty adept in terms of downing it inside the 20. Whatever he did last year in kicking the air out of the football every single time, I wish he could get back to it.
On some level I think the Tide has its identity at this point, and it is going to look something like the 2009 team. Going forward I fully expect to see an offense similar to the one we saw in the second half: a ball-control type utilizing the run game and intermediate passing game with frequent roll-outs on early downs to buy extra time and reduce the field for Jake. There will still be a few deep shots thrown in, but at this point we shouldn't expect to hit on many of them as Jake and the WRs seem to be struggling to get in sync in that area. The good news is that Alabama has won with old-fashioned "boring" football before and that the defense appears to have the athletes necessary to limit the spread offenses. This is going to be it, folks, for better or for worse.
The Tide seemed to emerge from this one pretty healthy on the injury front. Jonathan Allen left the game with a shoulder issue, but Saban said after the game that it is a chronic problem that he has played through before and is expected to play through again. Time to get ready for a Georgia team that is looking strong and undoubtedly believes it is the best team in the conference right now. While the run defense has looked unbelievable thus far, Nick Chubb and that veteran offensive line present a challenge unlike any they have seen. Win or lose, it should be a fun one. Roll Tide.