Western Kentucky Game Review
These are the times that try men’s souls. Um. No. Settle down, skippy – they aren’t. The times that tried men’s souls were the Mike Shula years – remember those? Good times. The Shula error, er, era, was one that consisted of having penalties like too many men on the field…on the opening kickoff. Taking multiple timeouts during one possession because we couldn’t seem to the plays in on time. We could barely break a huddle or resemble anything remotely like a division I football team. You remember those days, right?
If you recall the Shula Daze, then surely (yeah, I know, don’t call you Surely) you can recognize how far we’ve come as a program when fans are upset over a 35-0 shutout over, well, anyone! But, here we are. I fault Saban, personally. Damn him for raising our expectations to such a level that we fans, like the head coach himself, will not tolerate a six sack performance by our offense. We will not settle for a team having more time of possession of the football than we do (yes, WKU won the time of possession battle 32:28 to 27:32). We fans have graduated from the Mike Shula school of Moral Victories to the Nick Saban school of Domination. We now can recognize good football when we see it and, honestly, we didn’t see as much of it Saturday as we would have liked. At the time, that was a big, big deal as we fretted over the fact that #8 Arkansas was looming on the horizon. But, with the Hogs’ players falling like flies and the team’s historic fall out of the top 25, Alabama can now focus on their main opponent – themselves.
Yes, I know, Arkansas’ all SEC QB, Tyler Wilson, may actually be able to play Saturday after suffering a terrible concussion from multiple decrapitating hits from the mighty Warhawks of Louisiana Monroe. Goodie for him and the hospital staff that will get to see him once again Saturday night. The thing is, Alabama should beat Arkansas whether Wilson can sleepwalk to the huddle or not. As of today, with the exception of the LSU game, Alabama’s toughest opponent on the schedule is Alabama. Losing the time of possession battle, giving up six sacks, being unable to convert 3rd and 1s and missing open field tackles is a recipe for defeat. I’m expecting Saban to get into the bowels of Hell’s Kitchen and fix that recipe this week. How do you kids like your Hog? I hope you like your pork shredded……but…..for now…..let’s enjoy the Hilltopper notes!
Alabama on Offense
Hey, look at the bright side, would ya? There’s a lot to be happy about here so chin up, my man (or lady – gotta be PC, right?). But, honestly, I’m simply executing the first rule of management – if you are going to deliver bad news, always start with something good. Here’s the good…
When he was not getting sacked, AJ had a pretty darn good day. AJ went 14-19 with two incompletions coming, literally, at the hands of his WRs. A third incompletion was a tipped ball that would have found its way into the wide open arms of Jalston Fowler (insert moment of silence here as it appears he is lost for the rest of the season). So, what I’m telling you here is that AJ was pretty sharp when he could remain upright. Additionally, the 14 completions went for 219 yards – an average of 15.6 yards per catch! That’s pretty solid! Also, when you subtract out AJ’s lost yardage due to sacks, you can see that the Bama backs gained an average of 5.6 yards per tote. That’s a solid average.
As the W2W4 predicted (shameless self promotion), Bama’s emphasis Saturday was on the passing game and, honestly, this mission was accomplished. AJ threw four TD passes (the single game record at Alabama is five TDs) and two Alabama wide receivers (Norwood and Jones) each caught 2 TDs for the first time since 1950. Um. NINE-TEEN-FIFTY! That’s a mighty long time and it’s quite a bit of production thru the air for a noted run first offense. Meanwhile, TJ Yeldon continued to impress both as a runner and a receiver and he certainly seems to be a difference maker in the Bama backfield.
But, it certainly wasn’t all crimson colored roses by any stretch of the imagination. There were multiple problems and multiple disappointments, not the least of which was the loss of the dynamic Jalston Fowler. We’ve looked at the good things above, so let’s let the Lighthouse cast a light on the bad and the ugly from Saturday.
My Heart Will Go On: You guys know I love me some Jalston Fowler, so it’s only appropriate that Celine Dion’s words console me during this time of mourning. Damn. Fowler’s knee injury is severe and he’s likely done for the season. While, yes, you should all keep a watch for me around any tall bridges and buildings in area, his loss is even more devastating to the Bama offense. The I formation was highly effective for us and utilized Jalston’s dynamic skill set. He also was a tremendous tailback and probably didn’t quite get the credit he deserves for his ability to run the football. To the good, Jalston does qualify for a medical redshirt so all is not lost for the young man. And, for me, somehow my heart will have to go on…
What the H: Saturday, Alabama lost not one H back but two. Along with the loss of Fowler, Brent Calloway also left the game with a shoulder injury. So, Bama is suddenly woefully thin at what was once a strong position. Thank God for our big Johnson (Kelly, of course).
Unbreak My Quarterback: Say it with me. AJ cannot get hurt. AJ cannot get hurt. After giving up two sacks against Michigan and SIX, count ‘em, SIX sacks against an undermanned Western Kentucky team, keeping AJ healthy is in serious jeopardy. The sacks are bad enough but if the trainers have to call all the king’s horses and all the king’s men to put Humpty McCarron back together again, well, you can start making your reservations for the Chic-Fil-A bowl. So what’s happening??? Let’s take a look at the sacks one by one, shall we? And, for you, we’ll even take a look at the Michigan sacks from week one just for effect.
- Empty set: Michigan blitzes a LB. Williams points him out but AJ misses the read and is sacked. No fault of the OL.
- Single back set: AJ has time and can throw ball away. Warmack became disengaged with rusher and couldn’t slow his pursuit but AJ could have rolled away from the pressure.
- Single back set: The corner is clearly showing blitz but AJ doesn’t audible. Instead, he does a play action fake and rolls right to the blitzing corner. Dumb.
- Shotgun with one back: DJ Fluker was beaten badly by a speed rush. BADLY.
- Shotgun with one back: Somehow, Warmack and Cyrus allow a rusher to split between them nearly unimpeded. Another sack courtesy the vaunted OL.
- Shotgun with one back: AJ had plenty of time and held the ball too long.
- Single back set (unbalanced line): DJ Fluker, posing as a left tackle, allows a blow by which took out AJ and Jalston. DJ struggles with the speed rush and Bama paid the price on this one by moving him to LT.
- Shotgun with one back: AJ held the ball too long but Cyrus did lose contact with his man. Still, I put this one on AJ.
Your final numbers for the sack blame game:
AJ’s Fault – 5
DJ Fluker’s Fault – 2
Cyrus’ Fault – 1 (though you could say he was responsible for #8).
As you can see, the QB bears a ton of responsibility here so all is not as bad upfront as you might think.
Let’s Get Physical: Last week, the Michigan defenders were kind enough to stand still and let us crush them all day long. Barrett Jones had time to combo block the DT and then make his way to the Michigan LBs. This week, WKU came in determined to flood the rushing lanes with bodies coming downhill and, by and large, they were very effective with this. On one particular play where Yeldon lost five yards, the WKU defenders slammed into the OL like heat seeking missiles finding a politician’s hot air. Warmack was shoved into the backfield while Steen and Cyrus were blown up as well. The running starts that the Toppers were getting seemed to out-physical our OL up front on occasion and, honestly, was pretty mystifying. I rarely, if ever, saw any Bama OL get to the second level. To be so big and so strong, our OL got shoved around at times, including a 3rd and 1 at midfield. Not. Good.
Slot Machine: Ok, so this is another positive that I decided to slip in the review. Prior to the game, I felt strongly that the slot position would bear some fruit in this one and, sure enough, it did. First, Williams and Vogler moved from the WR side to the opposite side and four WKU defenders shifted away from Norwood, who was in the slot. Norwood’s slant went right to the vacated area and, 47 yards later, he thanked the defenders for kindly moving out of the way.
Playing Slots a Lot: The first TD pass to C Jones was out of the slot. Again, we motioned away from the slot and the defenders basically opened up the passing lane themselves. The 33 yard TD to Norwood came out of the slot. The 22 yard TD to C Jones that he juggled came out of the slot. And, yes, finally, Norwood’s 12 yard TD grab came as he was positioned in, you guessed it, the slot.
Communication: I’ve now seen this three times so I guess it constitutes a pattern. There have been three times against either Michigan or WKU where our TE and T double team the edge but they allow a LB to get inside to blow up the running play. Maybe it’s by design but the backer keeps sneaking in there and making plays while our two players block their one guy. This may need to change.
Security: AJ fumbled on the second sack and, while we were able to recover, ball security is a big deal. Ask WKU if their fumbles hurt them Saturday…
Quickies: Until Drake’s 32 yard TD run, the longest run from scrimmage was from …. Cody Mandell. After getting a first down and then promptly running backwards to lose the first down, I’m guessing Amari Cooper is getting some “instruction” this week. Alabama was 3 for 10 on third down against Michigan and converted 4 of 10 tries against WKU. This must improve. Oh, and I told you guys that Blake Sims would get a lot of snaps if something happened to AJ. I hope you believe me now… J
Alabama on Defense
Well, let’s once again start with looking at the positives on defense. I think we have to begin the superlatives with zero. ZEE-RO. As in shutout. Zip. Zero. Nada. When the final score hit the news desks around the country, the ZEE-RO garnered quite a bit of attention. To those who watched the game, they know that WKU challenged us in a way few teams have with repeated third down conversions and by owning the time of possession stats. But, at the end of the day, zero points were scored on Alabama’s “young” and “retooling” defense. As we said before the season, they may not be the legendary or historic defense that last year’s D was but they will be plenty good. That they are.
I think, too, we also have to slap some high fives and fannies for causing four turnovers. That’s right – when you see your boys at the water cooler, feel free to smack them on the can and shout “good game” and then talk about those turnovers. One turnover was a pick by young Deion Belue and then three fumble recoveries happened to be the keys to the game. Each time WKU turned the ball over, they had gained at least one first down and some good momentum. On one fumble, the Toppers had methodically worked the ball all the way to the Bama 19 before a Xzavier Dickson sack forced a fumble that Vinnie Sunseri scooped up. Honestly, I was extremely impressed with the Topper game plan and I suspect you’ll see some variations of their plan as we progress into the season. What’d they do? Let’s take a look….
Don’t Want No Short, Short Man: Time and time again, WKU completed a short pass to convert a first down. For most teams, these short passes over the middle would be considered a check down or a last read but, as it turns out, the Topper coaches saw something in the Bama D that seemed readily available. The Alabama LBs drop beyond the first down line to gain and then rush up to close down any passes thrown in front of them. Well, WKU figured out that this was an area in the Tide defense that they could exploit, and they did. A lot. Look for other teams to exploit the short passing game in the future.
Under Pressure: Usually, I would use this tag for the opposing QB. I mean, you have to figure that the Bama front seven would be putting some serious pressure on the other team’s QB, right? Well, this week I’m reserving the tag for our LBs and Vinnie Sunseri, as they were targeted in the passing game time and time again. Again, look for other teams to try to attack Vinnie, Nico and Adrian Hubbard (no, seriously, he spent more time in coverage than he did rushing the passer) in the short to intermediate passing game as this was clearly not their forte.
Mr Ed: Mega props go out to Ed Stinson as he turned in perhaps his finest game as a Crimson Tider. Big Ed got himself a sack, two tackles for loss and a hurry. He played exceptionally well as a DE.
Oh Brother, Where Art Thou: Where in the world was Vinnie Sunseri Saturday? Bama played in a 3-4 or a 4-3 throughout the majority of the game and, in our regular sets, Nick Perry was playing at safety opposite of Robert Lester. Vinnie had been playing the safety position last week but he got scorched in coverage a couple of times when he was caught looking into the backfield as a WR went streaking past. I’m not saying that was the reason Vinnie wasn’t out there but I am saying that he wasn’t out there. It is interesting that Perry is ahead of Clinton-Dix as well, btw. Sunseri was in on all of the nickel and dime coverages – he just didn’t play safety in the regular sets.
Wack-a-Topper: It wasn’t like WKU was just handing us the ball Saturday. Nope. The Tide defenders decided that they simply were tired of being out there for so long, so they did something about it. First, Nico Johnson delivered a bone jarring hit which caused a fumble. Then Adrian Hubbard crashed down from his defensive end spot and swiped the ball out of the ball carrier’s hands. Then Dickson tracked down the WKU QB and caused a sack and a fumble just like they preach it in practice every day. The first thing they do in the defensive meeting is to give out props to the guys who caused turnovers so these guys should have had a lovely Sunday morning.
Doin’ the Butt: With Jesse Williams sitting out due to a concussion, Brandon Ivory played most of the day at the nose tackle position. Ivory goes about 320 bills so it’s a lot to ask for a big man like that to shoulder the load all day long. Enter big DarrenLake. Lake was thought to be a possible redshirt but, with Williams out, Lake’s 320 lbs was needed to spell Ivory. Additionally, Damion Square actually played a few snaps at the nose so it was a rather busy day at the nose tackle position.
Lonely Man There On the Corner: Yeah, so I saw a lot of #42 running around trying to cover people. I’ll just say that Adrian Hubbard isn’t quite turning himself into a cover corner just yet. I’ll also say that I’d much rather see him squashing QBs.
I Can’t Get No Satisfaction: Bama actually blitzed quite a bit. We brought backers and safeties primarily and none of them got near the QB. This is very disappointing and something that needs a vast amount of improvement.
Do You See What I See: Alabama may be the best team in the country in sniffing out screens and, once again, we sniffed one out on Saturday. Credit Ed Stinson’s pressure and Damion Square’s recognition skills as they snuffed out another screen before it began.
Alabama on Special Teams
Let’s give yet another shout out to my man, Cade Foster. Am I the only guy rooting for him? Cade put 4 of his six kickoffs into the end zone and continues to be a strong contributor on special teams. No kickers were called upon to kick any field goals but Cody Mandell had yet another stellar game. Cody boomed 5 punts for a 44.8 point average and is turning into the best punter Bama has had in a very long time.
There was really nothing noteworthy in the return game to speak of but I will say our coverage teams continue to get the job done. Kick coverage has been an especially sore subject around the Capstone but, thus far, they’ve been outstanding. Saban calls them the F&F crew because they are fast and most are freshmen but, nonetheless, they are getting it done.
Saturday was not a day that should try men’s souls. No. That was a few years ago during the Mike parade (Mikes Dubose, Shula and Price) and I think we all remember those days all too well. While Saturday’s effort won’t exactly be going up on Saban’s mantle, he was able to get the team to focus well enough to shut out a pretty decent little ball club. I do think the team exposed themselves more than Brittney Spears getting out of a limo, but their flaws are mostly correctable. While the hand wringing is taking place over the offensive line, a closer inspection tells us that most of it can be corrected by AJ. This is a very, very good thing. However, DJ Fluker’s struggles with speed rushers off the edge could result in a catastrophic injury to the only true QB we currently have on the roster. WE MUST PROTECT THIS HOUSE!
On defense, I’m a little concerned about the inability of our blitzes to get close enough to even sniff the QB. Against Michigan, I chalked it up to an elusive QB who was smart enough to chuck the ball before he could get hit (regardless of who caught it). But, against WKU, we dialed up numerous blitzes but none of them got to the QB. I’m hoping we are saving some of our more exotic packages for, say, Arkansas. But, at this point, it’s concerning. Additionally, WKU locked into something that I suspect we’ll see going forward. I’m sure Saban would prefer to force a team into seven short conversion passes rather than allow one long one. But, the short passing game WAS there on Saturday and if I were an offensive coordinator, I’d be dialing these passes up a lot.
But, now it’s on to Arkansas to dine on some swine. With the reports of Wilson’s concussion being so bad that he was disoriented and convulsing in the locker room, I’d say the odds of him taking any snaps on Saturday are remote. I watched the majority of their loss to ULM and I must say that Alabama should be making the piggies cry wee wee wee all the way home this weekend. Tune in this Friday as the W2W4 will tell you how Bama will cook up some tasty BBQ…