Saturday night in Arlington, the nation once again was able to enjoy a Kickoff Classic whupin, courtesy of the Crimson Tide. This year, Alabama took on the Wisconsin Badgers in the only top 20 matchup of the weekend but only one of those teams looked like a Top 20 team. Hint – it wasn’t the Badgers.
Saturday night, the Lighthouse staff was in an Asheville, NC brewery, peering across the room and stealing glances at the small TV that was showing the game. Each glance seemed to indicate that Alabama was in complete and total control of the game and, after further review, nothing could have been more accurate. The Crimson Tide poured thru the Wisky lines like the craft brews pour out of Asheville – bold, frothy and full of spirt. By the time it was over, the Badgers were punch drunk and ready to get back to the Little Ten where, sadly for the conference, the Badgers annually dominate until they meet up with Ohio State. But, as bad as Wisconsin looked, make no mistake that Alabama had everything to do with their poor performance.
We apologize for the tardiness of the review but we are excited to get back to reviewing the games we love – and oh did we love this game….
Alabama on Offense
The Bama Lighthouse has given Lane Kiffin a very difficult time since Nick Saban hired him as the offensive coordinator and, after the Ole Miss & Ohio State games, we felt a little vindicated. However, when we step back and appreciate the entirety of the 2014 season, we have to acknowledge that what Kiffin did with Blake Sims last season was nothing short of a Harry Potter type wizardry. Kiffin turned a kid who could barely complete a five yard pass into one of the most efficient passers in the country, so it seemed reasonable to expect that Kiffin could do more with a slew of quarterbacks with even greater talent.
The real question we had going into Saturday wasn’t so much whether or not (insert QB here) would perform but, rather, whether or not Kiffin would be patient enough to use the one or two true power tools at the offense’s disposal. Last year, Kiffin refused to pound the rock against Ole Miss and Ohio State even though Bama seemed to be enjoying a decided advantage running the football. You’ll remember Kiffin’s most memorable plays as a play caller where when he prematurely celebrated Amari Cooper’s touchdown catches shortly after the ball was snapped. However, there are no such joys when calling a running play so we questioned whether or not Kiffin could do the right thing and emphasize the running game.
Welp, consider us impressed. Saturday night, Jake Coker’s first four plays were handoffs to his big, dominant, thunderous back, Derrick Henry, and that pretty well established Alabama’s 2015 offensive identity. Here. We. Come. The Tide amassed 238 yards rushing on 37 attempts. Henry averaged a ridiculous 11.3 yards per carry while Kenyan Drake averaged a meager 7.7 yards per tote. Kiffin’s game plan was to spread out Wisconsin’s defense and then gash them up the middle with Henry. Once the Tide was rolling on the ground, Coker was then able to throw the ball when Alabama wanted to throw and that led to a smart, efficient passing game for the Tide. Honestly, things couldn’t have gone any better and I’d put this game right next to the Florida game as Kiffin’s best play calling effort during his time at Alabama.
Mind Games: There were so many “great design” comments during the film review but I’ll focus on just a couple. The first four running plays of the game featured Bama slammers up the gut of the Wisky defense. The beauty of the design was using OJ Howard as a cross blocker, going against the flow of the play to block the end. This allowed our offensive tackles to get upfield and inflict heavy, heavy damage on Wisky’s vaunted linebackers. Just as you got used to Howard’s cross blocks, Kiffin would have him fake the block and then slip him out into a pass pattern, keeping the Badgers off balance. Making matters even more complicated for the Badgers, Kiffin introduced Kenyan Drake and Ardarius Stewart as fly sweepers running across the formation, threatening the flanks. So, off the same play, Bama gashed the Badgers up the middle with Henry, passed to Howard in the flats and did power sweeps with Drake. Awesome variety of plays off the same play action.
Beautiful Mind: Alabama ran numerous wide receiver quick screens but one of my favorite plays of the game was off the fake of a quick screen to Stewart. On a play action fake, Stewart stepped back for a screen, drawing a defender up to him. On the same side of the field, OJ Howard faked a block and then took off on a fly pattern, taking the safety and the top of the defense off with him. With that entire side of the field cleared out, Richard Mullaney crossed from the other side of the field and was wide open in the vacated area for a nice gain.
Smooth Operator: I noted several times where Coker showed the patience and maturity that eluded him last season. Instead of panicking if his first read was covered, Coker showed the ability to check his first read and then come off if it to hit a second or even third read. He hit check downs, he patiently allowed screens to develop and he waited and allowed his receivers to get to the open spots on the field. Jake the Snake even used his cadence to get the Wisky defenders to jump across the line of scrimmage (and quick snapped them during a poor line change). Free yardage anyone? Sure, he could have thrown the ball away once or twice but, overall, he was outstanding and showed that he has been very well coached.
Short People: But, for the love of all that’s good and holy, please show off your arm, Jake! If you could please stop under throwing wide ass open receivers, that’d be great. Don’t want no short, short man. In the coming weeks, I think he’ll get his timing down with his receivers and those under throws will become touchdowns.
Anticipation: I thought Derrick Henry did a tremendous job of allowing his blockers to get out in front of him, especially on his two long touchdown runs. He allowed his blocks to get set and then he burst thru the hole behind them. Once he was in the secondary, there were several Wisky defenders who anticipated a big collision and decided to “accidentally” take a bad angle.
Shake (and Drake) It Off: What leg injury? Kenyan Drake is back and he is one bad mammer jammer, folks. We all know about the speed but he exhibited outstanding balance and power on his long TD run. Peeps, we are just scratching the surface here with him and Henry in the same backfield. So many threats, so few defenders.
Who Are You? Hey, call off the missing persons report because OJ Howard is alive and evidently he’s very well. God created Howard for the express purpose of catching pop passes so thank God Kiffin has finally found him. The best part of the day to me was the fact that Kiffin found a way for Howard to be on the field and contribute as a blocker. Using him to cross block across the formation allows him to take on a lighter, off balance defensive end away from the point of attack. Finding some way for Howard to contribute as a blocker was essential and I think the staff did a marvelous job with him on Saturday.
Invisible Touch: Damn, Calvin Ridley showed off some terrific hands. He’s been the talk of fall camp but he failed miserably to catch the football during the scrimmage. However, I’d like to officially be put back on the Calvin Ridley bandwagon – this kid is phenomenal. His first catch from Bateman highlighted a spectacular pair of hands and a silly burst to get upfield and convert a third down. He was soooo smooth….
- Although the stats won’t tell you this, Cooper Bateman has a long, long way to go. He missed reads, made at least three bad decisions with the football and threw the ball to the wrong shoulder of his receivers. He even did a play action fake to the opposite side of where the back was – not super effective. Get used to Jake Coker – he’s the guy.
- Flourney-Smith cannot block. At all. Dakota Ball, the converted defensive lineman turned tight end, had a few good moments and a few really bad ones as a blocker but Flourney-Smith’s whiffs were quite consistent.
- Whenever the Tide needs a critical short yardage first down look for them to slam the ball behind Cam Robinson and Ross Pierschbacher. Combined with Ryan Kelly, they absolutely worked over the Badger’s front line. I mean, it was a work of art and it looked like they’d been doing it together for years.
- On the other side, fan fave Dominick Jackson fared well but Alphonse Taylor did not grade out well this week.
- Damien Harris straight up killed a dude on Cyrus Jones’ first punt return. You will be really, really impressed with him before this season is over, I promise.
Alabama on Defense
I don’t consider Wisconsin to be much of a juggernaut on offense but they do feature a solid running attack and a smart, efficient passing game. I honestly liked the way they used play action passes to hit their backs on short, quick throws gaining yardage on first down but, outside of that, they didn’t have much that could threaten the Crimson Tide defense. Their receivers couldn’t separate from coverage. Their line couldn’t hold up against Alabama’s defensive line. Their backs couldn’t outrun the Tide’s backers. Simply put, they were completely overmatched and it showed. There’s not a whole lot of uncovered ground to cover here, but we’ll try to shine a light on a few key items.
Thunderstruck: The most interesting thing about Saturday’s defensive effort the use of Reuben Foster as a three down CJ Mosley-esque type of linebacker. At one time, I was certain Foster’s career would end being carted off after delivering a big hit and receiving a thunderous ovation from a frenzied crowd. But, now, it appears that he’s actually going to be the next special Alabama linebacker. Foster showed the ability to run sideline to sideline as well as deliver his usual array of de-crapitating hits and he’s going to be a vital part of this season’s defense (particularly against the spread teams). To me, this was the most impressive and important development on this year’s defense.
New Kid on the Block: Mincah Fitzpatrick showed several flashes of brilliance as well as a few flashes of being a lost puppy, drawing the ire of Saban at the end of the evening. But, this kid is special and he’s going to be used as a weapon against spread teams.
Another Brick in the Wall: Oh, sure, you all know about Bama’s d-line beasties like Jarran Reed, A’shawn Robinson, Jonathan Allen and DJ Pettway. But, the two kids that really impressed me Saturday were nose tackles Darren Lake and Daron Payne – they absolutely dominated the middle of the line. Payne even rag dolled the center on a couple of occasions – an incredible feat for a true freshman! These two kids are going to be imperative later in the season when it comes to stopping the likes of LSU, Arkansas, Georgia and perhaps others so it was great to see them not just stand their ground but dominate in the middle.
Counting Stars: After the Ohio State beatdown, Coaches Saban and Smart met with former Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman to find out what he saw that allowed the Buckeyes to run all over the Crimson Tide last year. Turns out, OSU feared any matchup that featured their center head up against a Bama nose tackle, so they shifted into formations that forced Bama into a four man front. This allowed the Buckeye guards to play against the lighter defensive tackles and it allowed their center was to get more favorable match ups against our linebackers. Saturday night, Bama played a ton of 3-4 defense but, oftentimes, they stayed in a three man front even in nickel formations. I thought that was kind of interesting as it appeared they were experimenting a bit with odd man fronts in nickel and dime packages.
Land of Confusion: Saban and Smart smartly used a variety of different schemes against the Badgers offensive line that led to a land of confusion. The Tide defense was ultra creative, bringing corners, linebackers and zone blitzes in a variety of different ways. It was fun to watch. Personally, I think it’s been a couple of years since Saban felt comfortable playing press man with his corners so I think Cyrus Jones and Marlon Humphrey are allowing the staff to get creative.
Smashing Pigskins: At the scrimmage a couple of weeks ago, the defensive line batted down several passes and they continued that trend against Wisconsin. It seems the line understands that offenses will be geared to get the ball out quickly, in an effort to negate the formidable strength of Bama’s d-line. Therefore, it seems the line has been coached up to go all JJ Watt on the QBs this year, swatting away as many passes as possible.
TROUBLE: Reggie Ragland is playing on another level right now. He’s in beast mode and it’s fun to watch.
Only the Lonely: Eddie Jackson did not have a tremendous game at safety. He’s still learning his new position, as noted by the fact that seemingly every big play in the passing game was thrown in his direction. He has great ball skills, as evidenced by his pick, but he took several bad angles from his safety position while defending the pass. Hopefully this will improve as the season progresses.
Don’t: Don’t try to fool Shaun Dion-Hamilton. Kid was a valedictorian so trying to fool him on a wheel route ain’t happening. Love the way he’s able to diagnose plays before they unfold – outstanding.
- Marlon Humphrey came up in coverage and absolutely rag dolled JJ Watt’s not-so-little brother. Wow. I was worried about Humphrey’s ability to get physical but I worry no more. Wow.
- Jonathan Allen is a tremendous pass rusher from the defensive tackle position. He’s waaay too quick and strong for guards to handle. When Bama goes small, Allen excels.
- It’s fun to watch Alabama’s d-line lock their arms out against the offensive lineman and be able to shed them to make tackles. Bama’s front completely dominated the running game and the Tide’s corners turned safeties never had to come up in run support.
- Ronnie Harrison took a horrible angle from his safety position on a long run late in the fourth quarter. Rashaan Evans nearly blew up the play but he failed to contain the edge on the very same play. Saban was not happy with this group and inserted the first string defense on the next possession (which ended with the Jackson interception).
- The one time I saw Tim Williams on the field, he ran a game and came free up the middle to wallop the Badger QB.
- Foster’s ability to blow up a screen was my favorite defensive play of the evening. If he hadn’t made the play, it would have been a big, big gainer. His recognition, speed and strength were all shown in one fell swoop. Awesome.
Alabama on Special Teams
Well, for those of you who wanted to have something to worry about, you’ve finally come to the right section. Alabama didn’t give up any huge kickoff returns as they are want to do but, aside from that, was pretty well a miserable night for Bama’s special teams. Boy, oh boy, did Adam Griffith need to get off to a strong start this season but it’s clear he’s going to be a challenge this season. He struggled at the scrimmage and it appears he’s still not in sync or in rhythm. We have to hope he comes out of it…and soon. His next kick will be huge for his confidence.
Also at the scrimmage, JK Scott was seen struggling mightily to find any consistency and that, too, was once again evident Saturday night. What was once thought to be an insurmountable weapon and advantage is, at least for now, a question mark. I can tell you he’s been struggling for at least 3 weeks. No idea why, though.
To the good, Bama’s kick coverage was stunning. Please do yourself a favor and watch track star Tony Brown (#7) every single time Bama kicks off. Not only is he the first one down the field, but he’s usually meeting up with the opposing returners around the 10 yard line – AMAZING.
Also, it’s noteworthy to point out that Cyrus Jones was a pleasant surprise as a punt returner. Last year he had me saying all kinds of Hail Mary’s before every punt because each one was a 50/50 proposition as to whether or not he’d even catch the ball. This year, he seems much more confident and that’s a huge plus for us!
Saturday night’s win was absolutely and positively an excellent start to the season. Lane Kiffin more than validated his worth as a QB coach and as a coordinator by showing off a tremendous game plan that featured his stud running backs and allowed his quarterbacks to efficiently ease into the season. OJ Howard was even removed from the milk cartons and Kenyan Drake emerged from his bubble wrap to show that he’s every bit as good or better than he was last year. And, featuring Drake and Henry together is going to be downright dangerous this season.
On the other side of the ball, Bama completely dominated Wisconsin both with their skill and with their schemes. I’ve been begging for a few more exotic blitzes in an effort to pressure the QBs in to mistakes and I think we saw more than our fair share of schemes Saturday night. The true defensive tests for this year’s Tide D will come against the likes of Ole Miss, Tennessee, A&M and Auburn because these teams employ the hurry up offenses and skill players that have given Bama’s defense trouble in the past. In those games, Daron Payne and Darren Lake will get traded out for pass rushers like Rashaan Evans and Tim Williams. Then we’ll see what kind of havoc Saban and Smart can create with speed instead of strength.
But, for an opener Alabama fans couldn’t have asked for anything better than what they witnessed on Saturday night. What a great start to the 2015 season. Quarterback controversy? No, I really don’t think so. In Coker we will have to trust and, on Saturday night, he didn’t give us any reason not to.