Saturday night in Knoxville reminded me of an old Clint Eastwood flick – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The good was obviously the first quarter of play where Alabama continued to play offense at such a high level that even AJ McCarron would have to approve. Coming off the shellacking of Texas A&M, Alabama’s offense posted 253 yards in the first quarter and stayed in such a high gear that even Dale Earnhardt was like, “damn!” With 12:03 left in the second quarter, Alabama led 27-0 and it seemed Amari Cooper had already eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark. Not for the season – for the game!
Then came the bad. Tennessee finally had the good sense to insert the electric Josh Dobbs into the contest (why he hasn’t been the starter from day 1 is beyond me) and suddenly a cake walk became a 27-17 hand wringing affair. The last time Dobbs was seen playing football, he was a 190 lb true freshman who played QB like you’d expect a scrawny true freshman to play. One year later, Dobbs looked like the second coming of a larger Michael Vick (y’all tell Smokey to watch his back) and it was clear the Bama defense wasn’t quite ready for his assaults on the ground or thru the air.
But, as good teams do (and this is a team that is trying to grow into a really good team), Alabama answered the bell when Tennessee closed the gap, marching 76 yards in 13 plays and gobbling up nearly six minutes of clock in the process. Game. Set. Match. Jalston Fowler nearly scored to make it a much more palatable 41-20 margin but he forgot to take the football with him into the end zone.
The ugly was the injury to left tackle Cameron Robinson. Hasn’t it been enough to lose center Ryan Kelly or right tackle Austin Shepherd along the offensive line? Now Alabama is faced with losing their best offensive lineman (by far) at a time when they’ll be needing him the most. Depending on who you trust, Robinson is either out two weeks or two months. Either way, he is a huge, huge loss for an offense that has been starting to find their way over the last couple of weeks. To the good, Leon Brown filled in more than admirably but we’ll discuss that and more in the game review….
Alabama on Offense
Honestly, did you ever in your wildest dreams imagine Blake Sims teaming up with Amari Cooper to set individual game passing records? I mean, yeah, we knew Cooper could do his part but I don’t think anyone other than Blake Sims thought that he could deliver the football like he’s done. Cooper ended up with 9 catches for 224 yards and two touchdowns and nearly had a third touchdown catch on a ball that he couldn’t quite pull in with one hand. He was amazing. But while everyone is acknowledging Coop, I think we should quickly credit Sims (and Kiffin) for getting him the ball. For all of the knocks about solely targeting Amari, there was only one ill-advised pass to him on the night. The rest of the time Cooper was pretty open so why not give the ball to the most electrifying wide receiver in college football??? Diversification will surely be necessary at some point but that point was not Saturday night in Knoxville, in my opinion.
Anatomy of a Short Pass and a Long Touchdown: Lane Kiffin has become the architect of the one play drive to open the game. First it was Kenyan Drake streaking down the sidelines for a touchdown against Florida and this week it was Amari Cooper getting free on a short misdirection crossing pass that went for 80 yards. Here’s how it looked:
- With Alabama aligned with 2 receivers right and two receivers left, Blake Sims provided a strong fake toss left to Yeldon that went with the flow of the offensive line. As the entire world flowed left, Amari Cooper went right, hiding behind the line as they went left.
- As a secondary target, Chris Black went five yards downfield and then also turned right. Eventually, he got so far right and beyond the flow that he was able to come back and block the only linebacker who had any kind of angle to get to Cooper.
- Cooper came wide open on the play because the entire defense went with the flow of the offensive line. Also, Brian Vogler and DeAndrew White cleared their area – White with a fly pattern and Vogler with a crossing pattern that also went left. With no one in containment on the edge for the Vols, Cooper was able to quickly get upfield and turn on this 4.3 speed.
- White provided the last downfield block and the rest was history!
- FYI – if you go back and watch, you can see Kiffin racing down the sidelines with Cooper. He started running at the Bama 31 and went well past the 50!
Kris Kross: Alabama ran this play at least three different times against Tennessee’s “cloud” coverage. Alabama stayed in a 2×2 set (twins left and twins right) throughout much of the game and on three different occasions they ran a play that had Black and Cooper lined up to the right next to each other. With Black on the inside and Coop on the outside, Black released straight at the safety who was supposed to be providing help on Cooper and this forced the safety to honor Black’s deep route. Amari hesitated, letting Black get out in front and then with the safety occupied, he then broke into a slant pattern. This play was money and converted three first downs. Later, Coop showed the slant route but then shifted (without breaking stride) into a go route for a 41 yard touchdown pass. Sweet.
Wicked Game: It seems when Ardarius Stewart goes in motion there’s going to be a wicked hard hit levied on the defensive end. Stewart runs down the line of scrimmage and, at the snap, then bursts full speed into the unsuspecting DE! BANG!
Get Off of My Cloud: Hey, you, get off of that cloud coverage. If you aren’t rolling zone coverage to Amari Cooper then you are watching him celebrate in the end zone. Thou shalt not guard Coop with one man and expect the safety to be in position to help.
Turn Down Fo What: The Vols might shoulda turned down that “Third Down for What” chant during the game. With that song constantly blaring, it seemed like every other down was third down (believe me, watching the game a second time and enduring this was brutal) but Bama coolly converted 11 of 15 third down opportunities. Overall, Bama is ranked third in the nation on third down conversions (55.7%). Pretty good for a first year starting QB.
He’s Got Legs: And he knows how to use them. Of course I’m talking about Blake Sims who converted three critical first downs with his legs and also ripped off another long touchdown run off the zone read! We likey the running threat from Sims and LOVE the ballsy diving first down run on the most critical of series. With Neyland amped and Lil John blasting, Sims converted a 3rd & 9 with a ridiculous dive. Four plays later, Alabama was up 34-17 and the game was back in hand.
Danger Zone (Read): On that same critical drive, Alabama rand the zone read twice for critical third down conversions, as well. This is becoming more and more prevalent in the game plan…
Whatta Man: What a mighty good man Leon Brown was when he took over the left tackle spot for Cam Robinson. I watched him closely and Brown executed all of his assignments and only once did he fail to get engaged on his man. Brown has struggled at left guard and, earlier in his career, struggled at right tackle. I don’t think he’ll stay at left tackle against LSU but he did a fantastic job once he came in for Cam. On the flip side, Bozeman had his struggles so I think Brown moves back to LG. This week, Shepherd is lining up at LT and Grant Hill is at RT – I think this is what you’ll see against LSU.
- Once again we were flagged during the hurry up offense as we tried to get people on and off the field. I’ve lost count of the number of times this has happened but it’s at least five.
- Jalston Fowler was used at tailback because Yeldon left the game in the fourth quarter with an apparent foot injury and Tyren Jones had been suspended.
- That was weird seeing Sims have to get a new arm band for the red zone – hadn’t noticed that before.
- The OL owned the second level and Vol standout linebacker AJ Johnson all night long.
- Did you see Derrick Henry run the wheel route? That was interesting. If he’d looked back for the ball, he would have scored.
- Did you see Amari Cooper lined up at tailback behind Fowler? Hmmmm. The handoff went to Fowler for a third and one conversion but we may see more of this in the future.
- It looked like Lane tried to dial up a trick play with Yeldon lined up in the wildcat on 3rd and 2. With Christion Jones in motion, the two kind of collided and the play – whatever it was supposed to be – blew up.
- When you see Amari Cooper head to the sidelines, it’s a 100% chance of a running play.
- I think the big sack on Sims was supposed to be a screen.
- Chalk up another false start for OJ Howard.
Alabama on Defense
Well, isn’t this interesting. Before the game, I expected to be heaping tons and tons of praise on the Alabama defense that, thru the first seven games, seemed to be improving. No one boasts as much versatile, quality depth along the defensive line as Alabama does and the linebacker play has improved drastically. And what can you say about a secondary that basically held A&M’s passing attack to about a quarter of their usual output?
But, there was Tennessee moving up and down the field on the Tide’s vaunted defense. To be fair, I don’t think anyone expected to see Josh Dobbs look like he did and it’s a credit to the defense that they adjusted as well as they did. The Vols were running an Auburn-esque attack featuring the threat of a fly sweep followed by a zone read between a very good running back and a surprisingly strong quarterback. With the Vols threatening multiple areas of the defense, the Tide defenders had to quickly adjust to the newfound scheme. On the whole, Alabama could have done a whole lot better in stopping the run (and the pass) and I do think Dobbs and this offense will be a threat from here on out.
I Like to Move It, Move It: Credit Butch Jones and his staff for implementing a solid scheme that made up for their deficiencies on the offensive line and took advantage of their skilled players at running back and receiver. It was actually pretty fun to watch them execute pretty much the same play over and over with pretty good effect.
It’s the End of the World: I have to say, Nick Saban’s defense typically does an outstanding job in containing and holding the edge against these spread attacks so it was a bit shocking to see so many running plays turn the corner. Typically the ends didn’t seem to have containment and the safeties were getting blocked. Bama did play the run infinitely better out of their 3-4 alignment and that’s the group that will see the most time against LSU.
Man in the Middle: A’shawn Robinson played another very strong game and was very disruptive.
Fruit Loop: Jonathan Allen spent a ton of time in the Vol backfield as he continually came free on a stunt or loop with whoever the other tackle was. It was probably his best game as an interior defender, as well.
Swing Dancin’: It also seemed that Alabama did not adjust to the backs swinging out of the backfield at the snap. Sometimes a safety would come up but oftentimes they didn’t, leaving extra space for Jalen Hurd to operate.
Wide Open Spaces: The most troubling part of the defense was their inability to cover or even stay close to the receivers sometimes. There were numerous blown coverages in this game, particularly out of the dreaded bunch formations again. Thankfully, Dobbs overthrew or threw behind open receivers numerous times or else we’d really be wringing our hands today.
Hang Time: In all my life I’ve never seen a fumble that had hang time but now I sure have! Dobbs escaped the pocket but was met with a ferocious hit from Reggie Ragland that sent the ball flying into the upper reaches of Neyland Stadium. When it finally landed, Eddie Jackson scooped it up for a Bama recovery. Man, what a hit!
Hang Time Part Deaux: I had no idea Trey DePriest had that kind of vertical but he joined the paratrooper’s club when he inexplicably fell for a Dobbs pump fake at the line of scrimmage.
- I told you guys Peterman was horrible. He lived up to my expectations. J
- Cyrus Jones recorded the first Bama interception from a Tide corner but had an otherwise forgettable game. He was beaten thru the air, he committed another pass interference penalty and he did a poor job in run support and tackling, as well.
- With Dobbs bringing a jolt of energy to the entire team by converting first down after first down, for the first time in a long time it seemed Alabama’s defense was affected by the pace of play. Twice Alabama wasn’t even set at the snap of the ball as players were running onto the field.
- How Jarrick Williams allowed that pass to get to Marquez North is just beyond me. He turned perfectly, tracked the ball beautifully and had his man completely screened off!
- For all of their difficulties, the Tide seemed to own first and second down throughout most of the night. The Vols had less than four yards to go on third down only five out of 28 times they faced third down.
Alabama on Special Teams
- Congrats to JK “Great” Scott who is now second in the nation in net punting. Scotty is givin’ ‘er all he’s got – amazing!
- The game started with another pretty long kick return. Giving up long kick returns is starting to be a trend.
- I’m sure no one outside of the end zone seats ever expected to get a football kicked their way but Adam Griffith’s first extra point try was waaaaaaaaay left. Never seen that bad of an extra point try…
At the end of the day, Alabama put together their best road performance of the season. For the first time on the road, Amari Cooper and Blake Sims were able to hook up as they’ve done at home and the running game pounded out 183 hard earned yards. Nothing is ever perfect though and after playing mistake free ball against the Aggies, the Tide returned to their gift giving ways by committing two turnovers and a few offensive penalties. Overall, it was a good performance but it’s still not that dominant four quarters that we’ve come to expect.
Defensively I thought the Tide adjusted relatively well given the circumstances. Josh Dobbs had not played all year and many thought he would actually redshirt this year. I don’t think anyone suspected that the Tennessee offense could look this good and this versatile this season. However, the defensive line continued to play well and the preparation against this type of attack should pay off when Bama faces the likes of Mississippi State and Auburn.
While some are saying the Alabama dynasty is over, I think we all need to consider what a good friend of mine told me today – for the seventh straight season as the calendar turns to November Alabama is once again smack dab in the middle of the national title conversation. That’s pretty dang impressive if you ask me. Sounds kinda like a dynasty. Big hurdles remain but Alabama’s playoff and title hopes rest in their own hands. At this point in the season, that’s all you can ask for.