WKU wrap-up: Tide’s mistakes temper the joy of winning

By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief

Sept. 8, 2012

 

In his early-week press conference, Alabama head coach Nick Saban made waves with a now-viral rant about expectations and the press, and the press’ view of Western Kentucky football. There were three different takes on why Saban was so grumpy:

 

  1. He actually believed Western Kentucky was better than advertised;
  2. He was trying to send a message to the Alabama team;
  3. He really doesn’t like the press that much.

 

First, Saban was right about Western Kentucky, to an extent. The Hilltoppers have at least two players who’ll be in the NFL at some point, tight end Jack Doyle and linebacker Andrew Jackson. Placed in the SEC for 2012, Western Kentucky would probably be favored against Kentucky and a game against Ole Miss would be a toss-up. (And right now, Auburn probably would prefer not to have to face WKU, either.)

 

Western Kentucky’s head coach, Willie Taggart, came down on the side of guess No. 2. Although, to give Taggart his due credit, he’s going to get a job upgrade if he continues to prepare teams the way he’s prepared Western Kentucky the last two years.

 

As for No. 3, that’s probably true anyway, regardless of who the opponent is, and Saban knows that Alabama fans have a here’s-a-twenty-bury-two attitude toward most of the regional media whether Saban is on a soapbox or not. Playing the media villain card in Alabama is like playing bridge while holding 13 spades – almost always a winner.

 

But if the goal was to silence criticism, that’s not going to happen. First of all, truth is truth. Secondly, there’s an entire industry dedicated to analysis, whether it’s a NASA scientist analyzing rocks on Mars, armchair quarterbacks picking apart game tape or writers pointing out what is often the obvious.

 

And Alabama has plenty to work on, not just for next week, but perhaps also in terms of long-term strategy.

 

It’s debatable whether Alabama’s starting offense should have been on the field at all in the fourth quarter. Chalk it up to either poor execution up to that point, or coaching stubbornness, but it’s hard to understand having starters on the field in pass protection on third and long versus Western Kentucky with less than 10 minutes to go in the game and up by four scores. Yet that’s where Jalston Fowler found himself, and here’s hoping his Sunday MRI looks better than Fowler’s face did as he was carted off the field.

 

Alabama may be the clear No. 1 in the country – especially given the ho-hum performances in the first two weeks from Oklahoma and USC – but if the national championship is the end goal, there are some big-picture decisions that should be made. Such as, whether to begin pulling starters from games earlier, even when the starters probably need the work.

 

Whatever the case, in the end, poor execution led to delayed bench-emptying, which led to Fowler sustaining what looks to be a significant knee injury, which if it turns out to be a major knee injury, is going to affect the look of the offense for the remaining games on the schedule. And with that, we’ll lead off our weekly game analysis:

 

  1. Say goodbye to at least most, if not all of the I-formation wrinkle. Unless there’s a fishes-and-loaves moment overnight, Fowler is going to be out for some time. There is no other fullback on the roster – at least none apparently ready to play. H-back Kelly Johnson can handle the blocking aspect, but Johnson doesn’t look like a running threat. He certainly can’t give Alabama the flexibility Fowler did as a third-down option from the tailback position. The Alabama roster lists no other fullbacks. H-back Brent Calloway has a background as a running back, but he is still filling out his frame after moving to the position in the spring. There are walk-ons listed at tight end or running back, names like Corey McCarron, Ben Howell or Michael Nysewander, but it would be a minor shock to see any of them suddenly elevated into Fowler’s role. The only running back big enough for the job is the starting tailback, Eddie Lacy, and you know that’s not going to happen. The better bet is that Alabama simply goes back to the Y/H look of recent years.

 

  1. Tackles still struggling with pass rush. Probably the biggest disappointment so far has been Alabama’s edge containment on passing downs. A couple of the sacks yielded to Western Kentucky were coverage sacks and at least one was directly the fault of QB A.J. McCarron holding the ball too long and trying to make a hero play downfield rather than throwing the ball out of bounds. But in back-to-back weeks, there has been a disturbing amount of pressure brought from off the corner by two defenses not previously known for great edge play.

 

  1. It’s safety-by-committee until someone steps up. Nick Perry started over Vinnie Sunseri and played mostly on early downs, while Sunseri and Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix were more package players against WKU than anything else. The fact of the matter is that Alabama noticeably feels the loss of Mark Barron, no surprise given where he went in the NFL Draft and how he’s played so far for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Perry has played solidly against the run so far in 2012, but Arkansas presents a challenge of a different order entirely next week. The middle of the Alabama secondary has stuck to the basics for two weeks, but is there a dynamic playmaker there?

 

  1. And at cornerback … There’s no question Dee Milliner is the top dog, although Deion Belue looked a lot more comfortable and aggressive in his second start. John Fulton moved back ahead of true freshman Geno Smith this week and played nearly the entire way in Milliner’s absence, and although he did a solid job, he’s not yet at Milliner’s level. The coaches were smart to save Milliner and Williams for another day.

 

  1. Is Blake Sims really the No. 2 QB? If you were paying attention during warm-ups, the signs pointed to “yes.” Alabama typically practices pregame exactly how it would play if the game was live, relative to the depth chart. It’s how TideFans.com, in 2011, noted weeks before anyone else that Bradley Sylve had moved to cornerback from wide receiver. Blake Sims operated with the 2s in warm-ups, but the question is whether that was in anticipation of running what fans have started calling “the BlakeCat” offensive package against Western Kentucky, or whether there has been an official change behind A.J. McCarron. Given Saban’s reluctance to address anything depth-chart-related, listing an official depth chart is likely a wait-and-see proposition. We will note that Phillip Ely wore a headset for most of the game (traditionally, under Saban, identifying the No. 2 quarterback) and had a helmet on ready to enter in the game’s final drive, before Kenyan Drake broke off his long touchdown run.

 

 

 

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