W2W4 – Alabama vs Western Kentucky

This week the Crimson Tide comes rolling back into Bryant-Denny stadium like a storm surge from a Cat 5 hurricane. The complete and total destruction of the USC Trojans was impressive and, though there is certainly plenty to improve upon on offense, Alabama once again looks like it could be the king of the NCAA castle.

What do you know about Western Kentucky? Probably not much, eh? Well, we here at the Bama Lighthouse are here to enlighten you on all things related to Alabama football and this week our focus turns to the Hilltoppers of WKU (conveniently located in Bowling Green, Kentucky). What is a Hilltopper? We have no flippin clue. But, at least we can offer you a few nuggets that you need to know going into this game:

  • 2015 was the greatest season in WKU’s history. The Hilltoppers went 12-2 and finished 24th in the country.
  • Western Kentucky won Conference USA last season.
  • Jeff Brohm is the head coach at WKU and he played QB at Louisville under Bobby Petrino. He runs a sophisticated passing game and is now 21-7 in his third season for the Toppers.
  • Brohm is seen as one of the brightest up and coming head coaches in college football.

Since Brohm is a former QB, you can correctly guess that WKU’s strength is on the offensive side of the ball. They return all five starters along their offensive line and have two or three outstanding skill guys at wide receiver. Gone is record setting Brandon Doughty who broke his own NCAA record for most yards in a single season by throwing for a staggering 5,055 yards and 48 touchdowns last season. His yardage and TD totals led the country but perhaps the most amazing thing was he also led the country with a 71.9% completion percentage! South Florida transfer Mike White takes over this season and after going 25 of 31 for 517 yards and four touchdowns it’s evident that this offensive system works no matter who is at the helm.

Defensively, the Toppers aren’t quite as impressive. Last year WKU ranked 72nd in total defense, allowing 405 total yards per game. Against the pass, the Toppers were ranked 85th but keep in mind WKU opponents were constantly playing from behind so they had to throw the ball. WKU’s rush defense was ranked 59th last season and we think that’s where Bama’s bread should be buttered this week. Here’s what else to look for in this week’s W2W4…

Alabama on Offense

Alabama fans have often wondered “why can’t we recruit a top quarterback to the Capstone?” Well, this common prayer has been answered not once but twice in the form of Jalen Hurts and Blake Barnett! True freshman Jalen Hurts stole the show against USC, running for two touchdowns and passing for two more scores. Hurts displayed the leadership and the poise that Saban looks for in a starting QB and it’s no wonder the true freshman has stolen the hearts of his teammates and fans alike.

However, Blake Barnett actually played very well also (some say he actually played better than Hurts) so we believe the coaching staff will continue to find ways to get both of these outstanding players some snaps at QB.

If there was an issue on offense against the Trojans it was the lack of cohesive play from the Tide’s offensive line. The coaching staff changed the configuration of the line merely five days before the USC game and it certainly showed during the first two quarters in Dallas. This week should be an opportunity for the line to continue to gel and work to refine their techniques, footwork and teamwork.

Western Kentucky’s defense plays a 3-3-5 and a 3-2-6 that is mainly designed to limit big plays. The Toppers play mostly zone coverage and love to drop as many as eight defenders into the throwing lanes at any given time. Rice, last week’s opponent, found most of their success on the ground but struggled to find passing lanes in the WKU secondary. Last season, LSU struggled to gain a 14-7 lead over WKU at halftime but eventually found their way by rushing for 211 yards and hitting bombs of 67, 55 and 61 yards. Frankly, we think Bama will go about beating the Toppers in the same way that LSU did. Look for a solid running game and a few over the top throws to win the day. Here’s what else to look for…

Deuces Wild: This one has a bit of a double meaning. The first meaning is obvious – it’s #2, Jalen Hurts. Rice’s QB was able to find some running room (85 yards rushing) in the WKU defense, especially when running the option and the zone read. WKU is very light across their defensive front and only employ three down lineman to stop the run. We think Hurts’ game tape will look like a “Freshman Gone Wild” after literally running thru the Hilltoppers’ defense this week. However, “Deuce” could mean the pairing of Hurts and redshirt freshman QB Blake Barnett. We think Barnett once again plays a role this week…

To the Window, To the Wall: When Bama drops back to pass the Tide will likely be facing zone coverages from WKU. Last week the Toppers dropped eight defenders into zone coverage, leaving very tiny windows for the Rice QB. Short to intermediate routes will be tightly contested this week and we feel Jalen Hurts will struggle to find his footing as a passer against the zone defense. This is where Barnett should excel – finding windows and firing the ball into the teeth of a zone.

Lean On: Western Kentucky relies on soft zone coverage in an effort to keep everything in front of them on defense. With that in mind, the corners don’t play a lot of bump and run and, instead, they back peddle away from receivers at the snap. Look for Major Lazers (he sings “Lean On”) on some quick hitches in front of the corners and quick slants between the corners and linebackers. These routes should draw the safeties in and allow Bama to go for the home run ball.

Backfield in Motion: Look for a breakout performance from Bo Scarborough as his size, strength and speed should be too much for the little Toppers to handle. Also, last week Bama utilized drive blocking to open up running lanes but this week we think the guards will be pulling and leading the way around the flanks. Since the WKU defenders are small, size should matter this week in the running game.

Sultans of Swing: A few swing passes were highly effective against the Toppers so we look for a couple of swing passes to the backs this week.

Will You Remember Me: This just in. Calvin Ridley is pretty good. After netting only two catches for nine yards last week, we think Ridley gets a chance to remind people that he’s alive and well with a deep shot or two over the top of the zone.

Don’t Rush Me: WKU showed absolutely no interest in rushing the passer last week, never sending any more than three or four rushers at a time. This is unlikely to change and should allow the deeper combination routes to develop a few times.

Tidebits

  • We expect both QBs to play. We expect Hurts to struggle throwing into the teeth of the zone defense but he may be able to connect on longer developing plays due to the lack of a pass rush.
  • We expect Barnett to be impressive running the football. No, this is not a misprint.
  • Bo Scarbourgh should have a few opportunities to show off this week but he will not supplant Harris as the lead back.
  • If Alabama does not focus on running the football down WKU’s throats then they will struggle in this game until they do.
  • Western Kentucky DT Omar Bryant (#9) has a very good first step and at 300 lbs he has the potential to be disruptive.
  • As with any 2 deep coverage, the slot behind the corner and in front of the safety will be open.
  • The zone read should easily topple the Toppers so look for Jalen to go off on the ground.

Alabama on Defense

The 2016 Alabama defense has essentially been handpicked to play against the style of offense that Western Kentucky employs. Speed, speed and more speed will be on display on the Tide’s side of the ball and that will be vitally important in stopping a Hilltopper attack that returns nine starters from last season. New Topper QB Mike White had plenty of time in the pocket last week to deliver SIX completions of 35 yards or longer (um, wow) so getting pressure on the QB will be a huge emphasis for Jeremy Pruitt this week.

If a QB is putting up good numbers then it stands to reason the receivers are, as well. This season WKU returns two outstanding wide receivers in Taywan Taylor (6’1, 195) and Nicholas Norris (5’9, 175) and they present excellent targets on the outside and in the middle of the field, respectively. Taylor is particularly worrisome. Last week Taylor caught five passes for a staggering 165 yards – four of which were 25 yards or longer. Taylor has that special knack of being able to adjust to the football and he can high point the ball with authority. Meanwhile, Norris typically lines up in the slot and his quickness makes him very difficult to defend – he snagged seven passes last week for 147 yards and two touchdowns against Rice. They way these two receivers burnt the Owls so quickly last week their opponent was more like Minute Rice.

Coach Jeff Brohm is obviously is a disciple of Bobby Petrino (sans the hot blonde on the back of a motorcycle, of course) and the offense that he’s masterminded has Brohm’s name being mentioned for the next big time jobs that come open. FYI – his agent is currently setting up bat phones in Knoxville, Opelika, Nashville and Lexington…

The matchup between Brohm’s offensive schemes and Pruitt’s defensive wizardry appears to be about as intriguing as they come. However, when you look past the numbers you can see that last season LSU limited the Toppers to 20 points while Vandy held them to just 12 points. When WKU can’t easily win their individual matchups then the schemes seem to go out the window. Here’s what to watch for this weekend when Alabama is on the defensive…

Head Games: Pruitt v Brohm is going to be pretty fascinating. Pruitt is going to want to pressure the new Topper QB as much as humanly possible while Brohm will be scheming ways to slow down the Bama’s vaunted pass rush. Look for WKU to use about a gazillion screens of every different variety known to man. Specifically, they love to get the ball into the hands of the outlaw Henry “No my name is not Josey” Wales. Wales led the team in rushing last year and runs a legit 4.4 forty so if he gets into space, he can be handful. However, Saban’s troops are about as well schooled on defending screens as possible…

Applause: Last week, Bama’s secondary eliminated USC’s all world receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster in a way that would make Tony Soprano proud. This week, WKU will line up in four and wide receiver sets and will challenge the Tide’s secondary in a way it was not challenged last Saturday. Look for Brohm to isolate and attack Anthony Averett and Hootie Jones in man to man coverage as many times as they can get the ball out. Also, look for crossing routes that attempt to attack Shaun Dion Hamilton in coverage as well.

And the Walls Come Tumblin’ Down: Bama’s interior rushers should have a field day against the Toppers’ offensive line. Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne and Dalvin Tomlinson should make it very hard for White to complete passes while laying flat on his back.

A View to a Kill: The Lighthouse has mentioned that new Bama DC Jeremy Pruitt is a lot more aggressive than his predecessor. With that in mind, it’s going to be fun to watch the games that Pruitt plays (or chooses not to play) at the line of scrimmage. The Tide only utilized a four-man rush last week and which was more than enough to burst the Trojans’ passing game. Will this week be any different? We think Pruitt will show a little aggression this week with some well timed blitzes. But, if Pruitt accidentally blitzes on a screen call….somebody’s band is gonna be playing their fight song.

Urgent: Much of the WKU offense is predicated on three step drops and quick hitting out routes to their wide receivers. Once they draw the corners in, they will run a play action fake and take a deep shot to a receiver running a double move off of the out route. It looked like WKU typically takes a play action deep shot on early downs so beware.

It’s Tricky: Brohm dialed up seven flea flickers last year, five of which went for touchdowns but just last week they ran four! First, the Toppers dialed up a reverse-pitch-back to the QB who then fired a strike to the tight end for about a 30 yard gain. Later, WKU ran a fly sweep to WR Nicarius Fant who then threw the ball to a wide open receiver (he was unable to catch it) on another trick play. And, on the first drive of the third quarter, Brohm dialed up a double reverse-flip back the QB pass that went for 20 yards. And, on the same drive, Brohm ran another fly sweep to Fant that was designed for a pass but Fant, instead, had to tuck and run. Trick or Treat!

Tidebits

  • WKU was unable to generate any running game whatsoever against Rice so their running game should not be a factor this week.
  • WKU isn’t really a huge tempo team – they typically snap the ball around 20 seconds or less on the play clock.
  • Brohm went for it on 4th & 6 at the Rice 25 so look for WKU to go for it on fourth down between the Bama 20 and the Bama 35.
  • In WKU’s loss last year to LSU, Taylor caught 10 passes for 103 yards and Norris caught 7 for 52 yards in a 48-20 loss. Don’t be surprised if the Toppers are able to move the ball and get a few chunk plays.
  • We thought White was staring down his receivers a bit. Should lead to a pick or two.
  • Rice stuffed any and all WKU short yardage runs. Bama will, too.
  • The WKU line did not handle loops or stunts very well.
  • Look for the defensive line to bat down a few passes at the line of scrimmage.
  • Rice’s DBs just were not the athletes that the Toppers WRs were yet they were repeatedly asked to play man coverage throughout the game.
  • Inside the 10 yard line, look for WKU to formation trips (three wide receivers) to the wide side of the field. The two inside receivers will take outside routes, clearing out the area for the outside wide receiver to run a skinny slant inside towards the hash lines. It’s a pretty slick play that nearly looks like a WR tunnel screen (aka picks or rub routes).
  • The LT was beaten a few times with an inside move. Tim Williams likely saw this on film and smiled.
  • White throws well on the run so look for some rollouts. Conversely, Bama may blitz to White’s right to eliminate the threat of the bootleg. As I continue to watch tape, White looks very accurate in the pocket or outside of the pocket.

Alabama on Special Teams

WKU’s punter averaged 47.5 yards per punt with a long of 56 last week. Meanwhile, WKU used two different place kickers and they combined to hit 3 of 4 field goals with a long of 31 and an ugly miss from 38.

In the return game, kick returner Kylen Towner is very, very good – averaging 37 yards per return with a long of 54 against Rice. Punt returner Nicarius Fant didn’t fare as well, losing four yards on two returns.

Trevon Diggs should have a few more opportunities this week to dazzle in the return game and we think Calvin Ridley pops off a scintillating punt return, as well.

Conclusion and Prediction

Although it’s difficult to draw any absolutes from watching one game of tape, Alabama should be able to run the ball at will this week and that’s precisely what they should focus on doing to gain control of the game early. But, rest assured Lane Kiffin will be dialing up as many passing plays as possible just to make us all scream at the TV. With Ole Miss on the horizon it probably makes sense to use the next four quarters to refine the passing game while you have the opportunity to do so but the game could easily be won without ever having to throw a forward pass.

Defensively, the WKU attack is exactly what Saban has built this defense to defend. Bama will be in nickel and dime sets on defense throughout the day so look for Brohm to isolate Anthony Averett and Hootie and challenge them in coverage. Meanwhile, will Pruitt blitz? Will he rush four? A combination? How will he dislodge the Hilltopper QB from the pocket? The Lighthouse thinks if Brohm dials up many slow developing plays, Alabama fans will get to hear the name of whoever WKU’s backup QB is before long. MEDIC!

Final Score: Alabama 41 WKU 16

 

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