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Hope for the Best: Arkansas State edition

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Sure, they’re a Sunbelt team, but they have one of the nation’s top offenses and a defense that will test Bama’s freshly-minted passing explosiveness

Arkansas State v Georgia Southern
Justice Hansen is a legitimately talented quarterback, and Bama will have their hands full with him and a tall patch of wide receivers.
Photo by Todd Bennett/Getty Images

“If you think there’s such a thing as an unimportant game, just try losing one…”Coach Gene Stallings

A week after seizing the reins of the 2018 championship race with a victory over a decent but lackluster Louisville Cardinals team, and while staring at an SEC opener against Ole Miss next week, it’d be easy to overlook the Arkansas State Red Wolves.

After all, they are a mere Sunbelt competitor, a state team…right? Surely mighty Alabama can roll over and through them like a steamroller through a crate of yard eggs, no?

As the wise sage of Paris, Texas Gene Stallings pointed out, one must always respect the opponent. And this opponent, for its lack of accolades and five-star talent on the roster, still poses the Crimson Tide with a daunting challenge this week. Arkansas State has one of the nation’s most prolific offenses and a quarterback who could start at many SEC schools. They run at a breakneck pace in a scheme that features a plentitude of looks and options, and they strive to run 100 plays a game. For an Alabama defense that is still green and shockingly shallow in depth, the Red Wolves represent anything but a cupcake.

On the other side of the ball, despite the offensive firepower the Tide put on display against Louisville, the Red Wolves run a complex, aggressive defensive scheme from an unconventional formation, and it is helmed by a well-traveled defensive coordinator who has been in the trenches for nearly three decades. Their defense is built to snuff the kind of lightning strike passing game that Alabama has with Tua Tagovailoa under center, and if nothing else, they’ll offer up a nice test for the young quarterback as he hones his skills for conference play.

Make no mistake about it, Alabama is the front-runner to make the playoffs again this season, if what we saw in week one is an indicator. But this is a young team the Crimson Tide fields in 2018, and the fact remains that every game could be an elimination game, even this early in the season.

Alabama will have its hands full on Saturday afternoon against an offense that will test its defensive mettle and a defensive unit that can cause the Tide to stutter at what it does best on offense. Can Arkansas State really offer any kind of challenge to Alabama this week? If so, will the game evolve into an offensive footrace, or will either team’s defense be able to force the action? Let’s take a closer look…

The Alabama offense versus the Arkansas State defense

What we saw from Tagovailoa and the Alabama offense last Saturday night was a thing of beauty for those thirsty for offensive explosiveness. It proved that last year’s National Championship game heroics were not mere fluke nor flash-in-the-pan success. Those results, and the ones the Tide claimed last weekend, are the future of this Tide team. Alabama has unmatched explosiveness across the board. The quarterback has a rail gun of an arm and the accuracy of a Reaper drone. The Tide’s receivers run razor-sharp routes and reel in balls with event horizon-like magnetism. The offensive line is building momentum like an oncoming tide and behind them Alabama’s battery of backs is everything it was expected to be.

How could anyone think that supposedly lowly Arkansas State could do what a Power 5 defense coached by a veteran defensive coordinator failed to accomplish? After all, Alabama’s offense looked as though it was competing against a Pop Warner defense at times in their game against Louisville, even though Brian VanGorder brought a relentless assortment of blitzes and pressures against the Tide O. Regardless of what they tried, however, they failed.

One could come to the same conclusion about the prospects of the Red Wolves defense as well. They have lesser talent, to be sure. And Alabama still has Tua under center, and all those aforementioned weapons in its arsenal. While no one expects Arky State to legitimately stymie the Tide attack, they are built to confound offenses like the one Alabama employs. Whether or not they can do that won’t be known until Saturday evening.

Arkansas State defensive coordinator Joe Cauthen is a crafty coach who knows his men will be outgunned against the Tide’s elite offense. Don’t for a second believe he doesn’t have a plan for dealing with it though, and for giving his players their best shot at slowing Alabama down. The Red Wolves are known for their offense, but their defense has been stout during their current heyday. With a tricky 4-2-5 scheme that can limit prolific passing attacks while keeping pressure on the offensive backfield, they are built to stop what Alabama does best in the passing game.

Here’s what the Red Wolves do well. They are aggressive, and they fly to the ball on early downs. The goal is to put offenses in down-and-distance situations in later downs through aggressiveness early on. They bring the heat up front and play safe coverages on the back end. When those third-and-longs materialize, they attempt to come with immense pressure to burst the offensive pipes and lead to three-and-outs, which puts their potent offense back on the field. After all, their offense is their best defense, and if they can keep the O on the field and get close to 100 plays, they increase their chances of winning.

Last season, they were extremely efficient on standard downs, as they ranked 24th in Standard Down Success Rate. They didn’t do so well on the latter half of that equation though, ranking just outside of the top-50 in Passing Down Success Rate. The risks they must take on early downs with aggressive and exotic blitzes only pay off if the opponent can’t convert, or can’t strike for an explosive play of more than 20 yards. Cauthen’s defense struggled with that last season, as the Red Wolves were 110th in passes for 20+ yards allowed per game, 95th in gains of 30+ yards allowed per game, and 105th in defensive IsoPPP (a measure of positive yards allowed per play).

That could be a problem against Alabama, as the Tide offense has proven the ability to be multiple, and to strike from anywhere on the field. Tagovailoa is the first Alabama quarterback of the Saban era who can make all the throws to any portion of the field. If there is a weakness in his passing game, it has not yet been demonstrated. He is accurate, crisp, powerful, and elusive with a lightning-quick release. His receivers have a knack for getting open, and he has a bevy of them. He takes advantage by spreading the ball around. Heck, even the tight ends had a few catches against Louisville, something that rarely happened with previous Tide quarterbacks.

Where Arkansas State’s defense is about aggressive efficiency, Alabama is built to smash that. It’s hard to be efficient against an offense that can go yard on any given play no matter the situation. Stack the box and Tagovailoa will cut your heart out and show it to you with slants and inexplicable deep plays down the field. Load up your pass rush and collapse the pocket, and he’ll pivot spin to freedom and find an uncoverable receiver shimmying towards the end zone. Drop eight in coverage, and Alabama will eviscerate your defense between the tackles with an all-star offensive line and a four-deep running back rotation.

The Red Wolves have two nice safeties in Michael Johnson (6-1, 200 pounds) and B.J. Edmonds (6-0, 202 pounds), and their nickel Justin Clifton (6-0, 207 pounds) is possibly the best prospect on their defensive roster. But they have inexperience at corner, and their depth consists mostly of freshmen. No matter what they do, those corners will struggle to stay within striking range of Jerry Jeudy, Devonta Smith, Henry Ruggs, and Jaylen Waddle. If it wasn’t for Tua’s propensity at balanced ball distribution, I’d venture one of those four men could have a career day against Arkansas State.

Truthfully, no matter what Arkansas State tries to do, it is destined to fail. Even when Alabama’s offensive line played tentatively and let VanGorder’s weird blitz action confuse them, because of Tagovailoa, the Tide still rolled. On several occasions early on, Louisville slipped a man past one of Alabama’s pass protectors, only to feel the frustration of Tua’s pinball action just before he released a strike. Nothing is more frustrating to a defense than getting the pressure it wants and still watching a passer sling first down after first down. (Alabama has been on the wrong side of that equation ala Texas A&M and Ole Miss in the past…they know how it feels.)

The Red Wolves will try to blitz. They’ll crowd the defensive backfield with DBs in a withering hope that because Tagovailoa is young, he will force the ball and sling errant passes. Those hopes with likely go unfulfilled, however. Alabama can attack Arkansas State as they see fit, and there isn’t much the Red Wolves can do about it.

The Alabama defense versus the Arkansas State offense

Possibly the only vector for an Arkansas State upset comes through its potent offense. They are led by an elite quarterback in Justice Hansen (6-4, 207 pounds), a rangy play-maker who can run and pass with aplomb. Hansen passed for nearly 4000 yards last season (3,967 to be exact) with 37 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. He is a threat to tuck and run, as he accounted for 415 yards on the ground with seven touchdowns, numbers that are more impressive when sack yardage is subtracted (he averaged six yards per carry in that adjusted stat.)

There isn’t much of a running game, as tiny-mite senior Warren Wand (5-5, 179 pounds) accounts for their ground game. He’s shifty and electric, but he’s no Barry Sanders. And the Red Wolves don’t need him to be, as they put a definite premium on passing to their regiment of wide receivers led by senior Justin McInnis (6-6, 202 pounds). Much like Louisville last week, the Red Wolves boast tremendous height across the receiving corps, with four of the six top receivers going taller than 6-3 (three of them over 6-5.)

As was the case last week though, height does not equate to success. The Cards had great height in a more-hyped group of receivers, and the Tide secondary absolutely shut them down. With an all new defensive backfield that was expected to suffer growing pains, Alabama’s defensive backs manhandled the UL receivers and diagnosed their tendencies from the multiple offense early on. They’ll have to have a repeat performance this week, as the offense the Red Wolves prefer to run has many of the same traits of Petrino’s style of play. They sling the ball all over. They build in motions and alignment quirks to cause momentary confusion. They carve up the middle of the field with slants and quick strikes underneath. When a defense draws up DBs to stop those yields, they go over the top for explosive plays. All the while, they pursue their sinister goal of exhausting the other team through sheer volume of plays and breakneck pace, wearing defenses thin and choking them down the stretch.

Louisville was unable to make hay in that regard, despite the perceived weakness of Alabama’s rebuilt secondary. The Tide was expected to struggle against elite passing teams, but the secondary solidified and played with a chip on its shoulder. Bama safety Deionte Thompson was easily the best defensive player on the field last weekend, bringing flashes of Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix to the Tide secondary and head-hunting anytime the ball was in the air. He is elite, and Tide fans should enjoy him while he’s in Tuscaloosa, as the skill set he showed Saturday night will make him a rich fellow at season’s end.

The Tide secondary shut down Louisville despite a somewhat flagging pass rush and a ton of penalties. Why can’t they do the same to Arkansas State? The truth is, the Red Wolves probably have a more potent offense at the moment than the one Louisville brought to its game with Alabama. Hansen is more seasoned than Juwan Pass, who made his first start against Bama. Hansen is a second-year starter who is surrounded by experienced receiver depth. He has a solid, veteran offensive line. Even without a powerful running game, Arkansas State can do plenty to frustrate the Tide, and if they get anywhere close to their desired play output, it could create cracks in Alabama’s facade.

Despite the talent Alabama starts on defense, there is a weakness that will be an issue throughout the season. The Tide defense simply has no experienced depth at any position but outside linebacker. Even at that position, two true freshmen (Eyabi Anoma and Cameron Latu) saw time in the Louisville game, which is indicative of the Tide’s need to get as many guys game ready as possible for what may come through the duration of the season. Linebacker Mack Wilson was dinged in the opener, which is problematic due to the lack of depth behind him. Sure, Markail Benton and Ale Kaho will be good in time, but both would represent a steep drop-off from the level of play Wilson brings to the table.

Even outside of the scope of injury impact, against a team like Arkansas State that seeks to wear a defense out, depth can be an issue as the game lengthens. Even the best players become exhausted, as the 2016 Clemson offense proved against Alabama’s best defense of the last five years in the national championship. 2018 Arkansas State is by no means 2016 Clemson, and Hansen is no Deshaun Watson. Neither is this Alabama defense the same as the one that put up historical numbers for the Tide that season. But you get the picture. An offense that runs a ton of plays at a rapid pace stresses a depthless defense, and unfortunately, at this point in the season, Alabama’s defense is in shallow waters to be sure.

In terms of strategy, what can Alabama do to limit the effectiveness of the Red Wolves offensive pace? The assassin’s bullet for such offensive schemes is the three-and-out, or more specifically, limited gains on first down. The latter begets the former. If Alabama can generate pass rush and pressure Hansen, it will limit first down gains. If the Red Wolves can’t lock up first downs and run at breakneck pace, a huge part of their game plan evaporates.

It is crucial that Alabama does a better job of disrupting the backfield than it did Saturday night. Quinnen Williams was a beast at nose, but the Tide will need more pressure from the edges to foul up offensive timing and to shell-shock the Arkansas State offensive line. If they can do that, then the Red Wolves can’t race car the Tide defense. If the Tide shortens the time of possession and stifles the Red Wolves series routinely, they will win going away.

To accomplish this, the Tide defense will attack on early downs, then play nickel and dime on passing downs to limit gains and prevent conversions. It’s a simple strategy, but it’s really all Alabama needs to do to shut Arkansas state down without the presence of a strong running game. Limit the efficiency of the passing game and you tame the beast. Alabama can, and will, do that this Saturday night.

Special Teams

Alabama’s struggles in the kicking game have seemingly carried over to the new season. No need to point out the obvious, but until additional evidence is available, there’s no reason to think that the Tide will be able to count on the kicking game to win contests this season. That may change in time, but for the moment that’s frankly the case. Fortunately, the Tide’s offense is so potent that the kicking game likely will be an after-thought.

On the other side of the coin, Waddle proved that he is worthy of the hype in the return game. Not since David Palmer has an Alabama return man looked so terrifyingly electric with the ball in his hands in Tuscaloosa. Waddle is the Tide’s secret weapon, and he will take back a kick sooner rather than later. He has a chance to be special, and until teams begin to kick away from him, he will be the boost that Alabama needs to give the offense excellent field position support.

Josh Jacobs returned a kick against Louisville and proved that his skill set is intact after battling injuries. Though his style is different than Waddle’s, Jacobs will also be a feared return man due to his ability, which gives the Tide a tackle-breaking power option to go alongside Waddle’s jitterbug shimmy-shake. This could be the Tide’s best return duo in years, and the prospect of scoring support from special teams is exciting to ponder.

One more player stood out on special teams for Alabama in the opener, and that was Keaton Anderson, who was an absolute wrecking machine for Alabama in kick coverage. He was all over the field, and he slayed return men when given the chance. He showed shades of a freshman Reuben Foster last Saturday night, and if he keeps it up, his presence could lead to a few more opponent fair catches down the line.

For Arkansas State, special teams is a mixed bag. They have a solid punter in Cody Grace, who averaged 41.1 yards per punt last season and only saw four of 49 kicks returned. Placekicker Sawyer Williams is decent enough and was 16-of-22 on field goal kicks last season. While that is not terrible, it’s worth noting that he missed almost half (4-of-9) of kicks between 30-39 yards. Yikes.

In the return game, the elusive running back Wand and “A-Back” receiver Kirk Merritt handle kicks, with Merritt handling punt return duties. Wand is in his first year as a return man, though he averaged 12 yards per return in the opener. Merritt popped a nice run on a kick return for 50 yards in the opener, so it’s clear both men have ability if not a wealth of experience.

Alabama cannot afford to take Arkansas State lightly this Saturday, but no one expects them to. Despite Nick Saban’s penchant for sparing opponents the agony of a blowout loss, it’s difficult to imagine the Tide not putting up a truckload of touchdowns against an outmanned Red Wolves defense. After all, Saban called off the dogs against Petrino’s Cardinals and the Tide still put up half-a-hundred on Louisville.

The results could be similar, or even uglier, for Arkansas State. One could argue that had the Tide defense not substituted heavily in the second half, UL would not have scored at all. Saban talked this week about the mental errors made by his defense, so one can believe that the defense will have something to prove this week against another talented offense. That said, the Red Wolves run a type of offense that has given past Tide teams trouble, and with Alabama’s lack of depth, if State can hang around, anything could happen.

Within the realm of logic, there’s no reason to believe Alabama won’t dominate. But this game is not being played in the realm of logic…it’s being played in Tuscaloosa, where a Saban coached Tide team once fell to Louisiana Monroe. Not that there’s any similarity between those games or the programs involved, but the point is that anything can happen at any time, no matter how unlikely it may seem.

Can Arkansas State shock the world and make a game of their contest with the Crimson Tide? Can their hurry-up drag-race offense catch the Alabama defense off guard and wear them out? Will Alabama’s superhuman offense throttle another hapless opponent? Or will Arkansas State’s unconventional defensive attack prove to be the kryptonite to Alabama’s Hawaiian Superman?

Time will tell. Until then…hope for the best.