One down, fourteen to go.
Nick Saban said recently that he wanted Alabama to get back to doing things "the way they used to" in terms of suffocating teams on defense and running over them on offense.
The Tide rode an impenetrable defense and a vastly improved Derrick Henry to an impressively methodical 35-17 victory over the Wisconsin Badgers, kicking off a promising 2015 campaign. Indeed, this win harkened back to the 2011 season when Alabama was content to run Trent Richardson into the pile while avoiding turnovers, knowing that the opponent's offense was going to struggle mightily just to move the ball, let alone put it in the end zone. For the most part this was a beautiful game to watch as an Alabama fan, but like most openers there were a few areas of concern.
Offensively, it wasn't surprising that Lane Kiffin decided to come out running the football on the first series while QB Jake Coker settled into his first career start. All offseason we heard about Henry's work ethic as Saban praised him for leading by example in the weight room and at practice. While he has had plenty of success in his first two years at the Capstone, there were times that he appeared to hesitate a bit in the backfield, perhaps utilizing finesse too frequently for a man of his size. This was not the case on Saturday night. Henry ran the football with authority, exploding through the heart of the Wisconsin defense, gashing them regularly to the tune of 11 YPC that were mostly gained between the tackles. Coming into last night I thought that splitting carries would take him out of any Heisman talk. The way he ran the football last night, consider him a contender. Kenyan Drake offered a nice change of pace as he looked fully recovered from his injury, burning the Badgers with his elite speed and signature reckless running style.
While Henry looked outstanding, it goes without saying that no running back can do it alone. The rebuilt offensive line was encouraging for the most part, opening several massive holes. The interior of the line held up well as Ross Pierschbacher looked as advertised in the road grading department, Ryan Kelly played the role of steady leader, and Alphonse Taylor looked to be one of the most improved players on the team. The pass blocking was solid as well save for a couple of breakdowns in communication that are to be expected in the first game. Cam Robinson had a few uncharacteristic lapses in pass protection, as Wisconsin defenders were able to beat him with speed on both inside and outside moves. He also drew a holding flag, one of far too many for the unit as a whole. These are issues that need to be addressed and should improve as the season goes along. Overall, it's hard not to be pleased with the big uglies in this one.
Jake Coker settled into the game in the second series and had a strong, if imperfect, starting debut. Concerns about his accuracy should be assuaged for the most part, as he defied his first-time starter status by making outstanding reads and delivering the ball on time, hitting receivers in stride time after time. The zip on his ball definitely looks a little different than his predecessors, and will undoubtedly open up opportunities later in the season. He did have a couple of gaffes that will show up in the film room, taking a couple of avoidable sacks early in the game, making an ill-advised attempt into traffic on an early screen pass that luckily fell incomplete, and underthrowing two deep balls. Kiffin was clearly perturbed by the second one, as Jake missed badly on a play where Wisconsin had busted a coverage and left a receiver all alone in the end zone. Still, a 15-21 performance with over 200 passing yards in less than three quarters is certainly more than most Alabama fans expected of him and much more than the rest of the country was hoping to see. Cooper Bateman played for a bit more than a quarter and looked fine, efficient but possibly too risk-averse, settling for the check-down a bit too quickly. It is pretty clear that Coker is this team's QB, and he should develop further as the season goes along and he gains experience that can only be obtained while playing against teams that want to beat you.
The receivers looked great in this one, with Robert Foster leading the way. Foster looked the part of the elite prospect he was coming in and may well end up being Coker's primary target. ArDarius Stewart looked good as well, and Calvin Ridley showed flashes of superstardom. Look for Kiffin to find ways to get that explosive young man the football. Best of all, OJ Howard actually got involved in the passing game, showing impressive catch and run ability. There is simply too much talent on the field to cover.
Defensively, the team looked to be in mid-season form, particularly against the run. Wisconsin's offensive line has been rebuilt but has plenty of talented size, and RB Corey Clement is considered one of the best in the nation after averaging seven yards per carry last season. There was absolutely nothing to be had on the ground in this one as Kirby Smart deployed NFL talent in waves on the defensive line. Reggie Ragland and Reuben Foster inflicted pain on Wisconsin ball carriers time after time. The size and speed of that front seven is something to behold, also showing up in the passing game as the Tide was routinely able to press the pocket while rushing four against six blockers.
The young secondary held up for the most part, particularly in the second half as Smart aided them by dialing up some additional pressure. Marlon Humphrey was victimized a couple of times by Wisconsin's best receiver, veteran Alex Erickson, which isn't terribly surprising in his first college action. Freshman Minkah Fitzpatrick looked nothing like a freshman in his debut, contributing in coverage, run support, and even looked like a natural on a blitz that resulted in a sack. The Badgers found success in the first half throwing the ball to running backs as the Alabama linebackers were routinely trailing in man coverage. This is something that will need to be addressed as other teams will clearly try to exploit it.
To be sure, this one wasn't perfect. For starters, the special teams were once again a spectacular disaster. The record shows two missed field goals, an unsportsmanlike penalty on a long snapper, a kick-off return that was inexplicably downed at the seven yard line by Chris Black, and poor kickoff returns all night. Most surprisingly, all-everything punter JK Scott seemed to be infected by the disease as he had a terrible night punting the football. The lone bright spot was the kickoff coverage. All we can do is once again hope this area improves before it costs us any games. Penalties were a problem across the board, particularly offensive penalties that uncharacteristically had the Tide playing behind the chains far too frequently. Coker still has plenty of growing to do, especially in terms of sensing pressure and sliding away from it while going through his progressions. On one of the early sacks there was plenty of room to step up in the pocket or even decisively take off, which to his credit he did on a similar second half play. Cam Robinson and JK Scott need to get back on track as the team will be leaning on them at some point in the season.
All told, it's tough to complain about a relatively easy win in a season opener against a team of Wisconsin's caliber. Alabama found its quarterback, was able to impose its will in the run game, and choked the life out of the Wisconsin offense. Special teams and penalties are potential Achilles' heel issues that need to be addressed immediately, but this team is good, folks, really good - and the sky is the limit for them.